On Veterans Day last month, USS Arizona Navy veteran Lou Conter told a gathering in Grass Valley about the fateful events of December 7, 1941—the day the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked Pearl Harbor. Of the 2,403 Americans killed, 1,177 were his Arizona shipmates. The attack also damaged or destroyed 19 ships including eight battleships, and drew the United States officially into World War II.
In the process, “the sleeping giant” was awakened, as Japanese Admiral Yamamoto had predicted and feared. “Remember Pearl Harbor!” became the driving slogan for Americans, to galvanize the resources-rich nation to ramp up its military industrial complex and destroy the Japanese military empire in just four years.
With the 81st anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack upon us, one can only hope that those who attended Conter’s Veterans Day talk truly appreciated its magnitude. Beyond his first-hand, eye-witness depiction of what happened on that day lies the reality that they might not get another opportunity to hear it directly from a Pearl Harbor survivor. In fact, he is one of only two surviving veterans from the USS Arizona. (The other, Ken Potts, lives in Utah.)
Indeed, Pearl Harbor survivors are vanishing, soon to be lost to the ages. Their stories will be left told through black-and-white photographs and newsreels of the time, and in oral history recordings.
The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association once numbered 18,000 members nationally and 70,000 worldwide. Today, known survivors number fewer than 1,500 overall, with just a few of them in California. There might be more than we know, because some for whatever reasons didn’t join the various survivor association chapters. Most are now around 100 years old, on one side or the other.
Northern California lost two of its Pearl Harbor survivors just three days apart in May with the deaths of USS Pennsylvania Mickey Ganitch, 102, of San Leandro and the USS Lexington’s Garfield Ware, 99, of Lake Tahoe.
Pearl Harbor survivors are indeed a microcosm of all living World War II veterans, who now number 167,300 nationally – about 16,000 of them living in California – and are expiring at a rate of about 230 per day, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
On or about December 7 each year, veterans organizations across the nation and in California hold National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day ceremonies. In Sacramento, the Gold Country Base of the United States Submarine Veterans, Inc., for the 35th year, will place wreaths on the Sacramento River at 9 a.m. at Discovery Park. The program is open to the public and will include several speakers.
Residents and staff at the Veterans Homes of California-Yountville will hold a ceremony on Tuesday, and the USS Hornet Museum conducted a remembrance on December 3 in Alameda.
But once the last of the Pearl Harbor survivors is gone, how long will the tributes go on? History suggests that heroes from any war are best remembered when they are still here to remind us of the horrors and heroism of war.
The last encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic – an association of Union soldiers from the Civil War – happened in 1949, and the last known living Civil War soldier died in 1956. Today, few Americans—that didn’t major in U.S. history—know the Grand Army of the Republic organization ever existed.
The last American who fought in World War I died at 110 years old in 2011. Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of that war, is now Veterans Day acknowledging all veterans of all wars.
Meanwhile, visuals of the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center twin towers and the plane crashing into the Pentagon in Virginia on September 11, 2001, resonate more with younger generations of Americans than does the old black-and-white footage of the Pearl Harbor attacks. The majority of Americans, in fact, have lived their entire lives knowing Japan only as an ally – not even as a conquered one – instead of an imperialistic enemy.
“I make the comparison that 9/11 is this generation’s Pearl Harbor,” said Navy veteran Pete Juhos and the longtime master of ceremonies for the wreath-laying event. Both events, he said, brought immediate changes in personal rights and immigration policies.
Each brought its own horrors to Americans and the world, and each deserves its place in our hearts and memories. And perhaps the comparison of the two events will keep them both in focus. Time heals, it sanctifies, and it creates hope from despair.
History suggests that without survivors to tell their stories, “Remember Pearl Harbor!” – once the nation’s battle cry – will someday become a plea. It will take a prolonged and concerted effort by the Gold Country Base and others like them to ensure it remains more than just a footnote.
“I hope it doesn’t go away,” said Juhos.
We must remember these events or expect that they will be repeated. If history shows us anything, we do not remember very well since we constantly are repeating.