For survivors, horrors of Pearl Harbor attack still sear
MARSHFIELD - William Keith remembers Pearl Harbor. He was there - five decks below on the USS West Virginia - when Japanese planes bombed the unsuspecting Naval base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, and nearly destroyed the US military force in the Pacific.
Keith, who was 19, remembers the battleship shaking as the first of seven torpedoes hit, and being trapped below in the hospital area where he worked.
“All of a sudden somebody opened a hatch,’’ he said. “It seemed like a ray of light. I went up a couple of ladders toward it. If they hadn’t opened that hatch, I probably never would have gotten out.’’
Keith stepped into a horrifying scene; burning oil covered the water, ships were on fire and sinking, while waves of planes overhead dropped bomb after bomb.
One hundred and six sailors on the USS West Virginia died that day, including 70 trapped below deck; altogether about 2,400 Americans lost their lives in what President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who quickly asked for a declaration of war on Japan, called the “date which will live in infamy.’’
Veterans groups across the region will commemorate the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor this week in an attempt to keep alive that life-altering moment in history.
It’s not an easy task, though, according to Marshfield veterans’ agent William Dodge. He doesn’t expect much of a crowd when the town’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8345, holds a short ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park on Wednesday, starting at 7:55 a.m., the Eastern Standard Time that the first bomb fell at Pearl Harbor.
“People tend to forget,’’ Dodge said. “It’s tough to get people to turn out for it, especially on a work day.’’
One problem is that it’s easier to celebrate a victory than a disaster, like Pearl Harbor, historians say. And then there’s the harsh reality that each year fewer people are alive who witnessed the event, Dodge said.
The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which formed in 1958 with about 18,000 members, is down to about 3,000, according to its website - and the youngest are approaching 90 years of age.
George Hursey of Brockton just turned 90 and remembers watching as a young soldier from a porch at Fort Shafter as Pearl Harbor was bombed. “We just saw everything being destroyed in front of us,’’ he said.
But he doesn’t plan to attend any commemoration ceremonies this year. “I don’t know anybody. There’s nobody left,’’ he said.
A new documentary, “Saving the Reality,’’ wants to keep the memory of Pearl Harbor and World War II alive by featuring interviews with dozens of veterans, including Sam Bernstein of Randolph and Tom Ruggiero and Alba Thompson of Plymouth. The film chronicles the life of Kenneth Rendell, creator of the World War II Museum in Natick.
“Saving the Reality’’ will premiere at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Quincy, at Port 305 restaurant in Marina Bay. Rendell also will display artifacts from his museum, including binoculars from the bridge of the battleship Arizona, which sank at Pearl Harbor. (Ticket information is available online at wwiifoundation.org/events/december7 or by calling 617-302-4447.)
The Quincy Veterans Council will hold a public wreath-laying ceremony at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Mt. Wollaston Cemetery; there will be a private ceremony and breakfast for veterans today at which the names of the 39 Massachusetts residents who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor will be read.
The town of Braintree will have a Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremony in the auditorium at Braintree Town Hall at noon.
And at Battleship Cove in Fall River at 12:55 p.m., the naval ship museum will commemorate Pearl Harbor by casting a wreath into the sea in memory of those who died that day - and then re-creating the event, using the ships and docks at the site and projecting images on an outdoor screen and sounds of incoming aircraft and explosions.
“The Pearl Harbor Experience’’ debuted in August, and Brad King, the executive director of Battleship Cove, said it’s so authentic that “we actually get people looking up into the sky to see where the airplanes are. We have special effects of bombs and bullets exploding in the water - it’s all done with air - but we’ll be running it without the water effects because those had to be taken out’’ for the winter.
“We finish with FDR’s speech, which is very, very moving even today; the anger in his voice is palpable. Then we bring people back to the present and talk about how America galvanized itself to become the arsenal of democracy,’’ King said.
“Every generation has its level of ignorance about things past,’’ he added. “The thing is we’re losing 1,500 [World War II] veterans a day in this country. They’ve been around to tell their own story, but as they fade into history themselves we have to find ways to tell their stories for them.’’
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.