Passing years taking a toll on number of Pearl Harbor survivors
"It was a God-awful day," said William Kidd of Bedford, who was a member of Unit #056 on the USS Phoenix that fateful morning. "I don't like to talk about it."
At the time, the air attack by Japanese forces on U.S. naval and air installations at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was the worst attack on American soil in history. A total of 2,341 American Navy, Marine and Army personnel lost their lives that day. Another 1,178 were wounded. Eighteen U.S. Navy ships, including the USS Arizona, were sunk or badly damaged, and nearly all the planes at the Hawaiian bases were destroyed or damaged.
The attack came without a declaration of war, prompting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare Dec. 7, 1941, "a day that will live in infamy."
"I think fewer people think about it now," said Barry Conway, commandant at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton. "To today's generation, Pearl Harbor is something they have a connection to only through what they learned in school, where the older generations remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about it. I also think that now the 9/11 attacks stand out in everyone's minds."
"For people of a certain age, the day will never lose its meaning," said former state Rep. Bob L'Heureux of Merrimack, who was the lead sponsor of a bill to name the new bridge that brings motorists across the Merrimack River and into Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. A ceremony was held in 2009 to unveil a sign naming the structure the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge; about 18 Pearl Harbor survivors living in New Hampshire attended the event.
"I was born in 1940, and anyone who grew up hearing about World War II and Pearl Harbor will never forget that time," said L'Heureux. "They were the 'Greatest Generation'. But we are losing members of the World War II fighting forces at an incredible rate, something like 1,000 a day. As the generations pass on, something like Pearl Harbor becomes another date in history."
New Hampshire lost another Pearl Harbor survivor in October, when William Lefabvre Sr. of Merrimack, a Manchester native, died at age 92. Lefabvre served as chairman of the New Hampshire Pearl Harbor Survivors Association Chapter 1 until the end of 2011, when the national association disbanded due to dwindling enrollment numbers.
For survivors, the memories of the attack remain fresh.
"I will never forget it," said Jim Bilotta, 92, of Derry, a Marine stationed at Camp Catlin, located in the sugar cane fields east of Honolulu. "It was a beautiful sunny morning, and we were just sitting down to breakfast when someone saw the planes heading in. We couldn't see the insignias on them. Nobody knew what was going on until the shooting started. We thought maybe the Navy was having target practice, but then the bugler blew the 'call to arms,' and we knew this was something else."
"The next day, the fires, the overturned ships - I've never seen anything like it," said Bilotta. "It almost didn't seem real."
Four Manchester natives were killed in the attack. Seaman 2nd Class Joe Rozmus died aboard the USS Arizona. Army Sgt. Maurice St. Germain and Pvt. Joseph Jedrysik died at Hickham Field. Seaman 1st Class David Crossett was shot twice by a Japanese fighter as he headed to the crow's nest of the USS Utah.
A memorial service will be held today at the New Hampshire Veterans Home to honor those lost in the attack. Gov. John Lynch has proclaimed today Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day in New Hampshire and ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff.
Conway estimates there are about 14 Pearl Harbor survivors living in the state.
"It was a terrible moment for America, but if there can be anything positive taken from that day, it's how it brought the country together," said Conway. "Men, women, black, white, old or young, everyone was involved in the war effort after that. It's too bad it took something like that to bring us together, but Pearl Harbor defined this country for quite a while."
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Paul Feely may be reached at email@example.com.