I feel very lucky. I’ve had the chance to meet and talk to survivors of Pearl Harbor. My kids won’t have that opportunity.
Dec. 7, 1941: 71 years ago the United States was thrown into World War II, and launched what’s been called “the Greatest Generation” into action. If you don’t know the story by now, you’ve missed out, because it won’t be long until no veterans of that war are left to tell the stories. Even more rare are veterans of that infamous day.My generation has its own tragedy that launched two wars. One day no one will be left who was in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, or fought in Afghanistan or Iraq.
It’s an odd thing to think about. One day 9-11 and Pearl Harbor will be relegated to the history books. Future students will discuss the events like we did about the Battle of Bunker Hill, or Gettysburg, or the Doughboys of World War I.
My kids will be far removed from these events. I’ll tell them stories about my grandfather, who fought in Europe, and I’ll tell them about my great-grandfathers who fought in WWI. But they’ll just be stories about people they’ve never met.
I’ve met some of them. Two years ago, I talked to a Pearl Harbor survivor, Bill Terry, who said he was still sleeping in his bunk when the Japanese bombs started to drop – he was 19. He was stationed on the USS Reid, a destroyer class ship that escaped sinking that day but did not survive the war.
Terry survived. It was three years after Pearl Harbor when his ship was torpedoed. Terry was on deck, which was one reason he survived.
As the ship began to turn belly up, he and others climbed over the railings to run along the bottom of the ship, before being plunged in sticky fuel oil and then into the Pacific.
I also remember my grandfather’s stories – all I have of him now. He never learned how to swim, and that made his trip across the Atlantic all the more harrowing.
He described it as a clear, sunny day. He was several years older than most of his fellow soldiers. He was also a very particular man with particular ways. He was walking around the ship when he came upon a craps game. He had no use for any type of gambling, so he moved on.
Seconds later, the torpedo hit.
My grandfather went back to check on those men. The torpedo had exploded near where they had been, and none of them survived. He then had to jump to a rescue ship that pulled alongside his. He looked down to the distant cold water below and then at the rocking ships. He knew if he fell between them, he would die. Thankfully, he made the jump.
I had never seen my grandfather get very emotional, but when he talked about his friends who died, and the injured man who died in his arms, I saw the pain was still there all these years later.
Pearl Harbor Day is a little more real to me. WWII is a little more real to me. I remember Terry, and I have many fond memories of my grandfather. It’s the connections I make to these events that makes me realize how awful and how great people can be.
I hope my children never have to witness terrible events like these, but I hope they remember the sacrifices of others. I hope my children will be better and wiser because of that.