Sur­vivors re­call Pearl Har­bor

Now, there are but 4 S.A. veter­ans of the at­tack

San Antonio Express-News - - FRONT PAGE - By Sig Chris­ten­son

They stood in si­lence at 11:55 a.m. Fri­day as they have for years, mark­ing the mo­ment Ja­pan launched an at­tack on Pearl Har­bor that forced the United States into World War II.

The lo­cal veter­ans of that bat­tle, a group of San An­to­ni­ans who once boasted dozens of mem­bers, number only four now, and only two made it to their an­nual lunch, but their mem­o­ries of that day 77 years ago are still strong.

One-time Ra­dioman 1st Class Wil­liam St. John and re­tired Tech. Sgt. Ken­neth Platt, both 97, were sur­rounded by three dozen or so fam­ily and friends at the Barn Door, the North Side steak­house where the re­union has been held for a number of years.

That was an ac­com­plish­ment. “We're hop­ing for two, but they're not in very good shape,” Ernest Her­nan­dez had said ear­lier in the week. His wife, Irene, is an or­ga­nizer for the Pearl Har­bor Sur­vivors As­so­ci­a­tion's San An­to­nio chap­ter, which had a ro­bust ros­ter of 64 mem­bers in 1992. Two mem­bers have died in the past 13 months: re­tired Air Force Maj. Richard An­der­son and John Buchanan.

Gil­bert Meyer, who served aboard the USS Utah, was thought by or­ga­niz­ers to be ob­serv­ing the an­niver­sary in Hawaii. An­other sur­vivor, re­tired Army Col. Bill Hayes, lives in a lo­cal nurs­ing home and didn’t make the gath­er­ing. He turned 100 last Au­gust and is said to have good and bad days.

Re­tired Army Maj. Vir­gil Lee Ward never be­longed to the group when he lived here but at­tended its 2016 lun­cheon. He now lives in Dun­canville, 13 miles south of Dal­las. At 99, he’s plan­ning on com­ing to San An­to­nio for a 100th birthday bash Feb. 2 — and he’s amazed about it.

“I con­sider my­self lucky to get out,” said Ward, who served from 1935-65 and had close calls in World War II, the Korean con­flict and Viet­nam War. “I was just lucky all the way through.”

Na­tion­wide, only a few can speak of be­ing part of a bat­tle that in­volved around 60,000 sailors, sol­diers and pi­lots. Events across the coun­try Fri­day saluted them. Com­mem­o­ra­tions in Texas, one of them at the Na­tional Mu­seum of the Pa­cific War in Fred­er­icks­burg, mark the mo­ment the bat­tle be­gan at 11:55 a.m.

It was dawn in Hawaii. Waves of Ja­panese planes came out of the blue at 7:55 a.m., specks at first that grew larger and more men­ac­ing to con­fused and stunned on­look­ers on the ground.

A Ja­panese strike force of 353 air­craft had launched from the decks of four air­craft car­ri­ers. The at­tack lasted just 75 min­utes and left 2,403 Amer­i­cans dead, in­clud­ing 68 civil­ians, as the morn­ing sky turned black from acrid smoke ris­ing from Bat­tle­ship Row.

The USS Ari­zona took nearly half of all the ca­su­al­ties, 1,177 killed. Now a me­mo­rial at Pearl Har­bor, it was one of 21 U.S. ships dam­aged or de­stroyed in one of the war’s most lop­sided and hu­mil­i­at­ing Amer­i­can de­feats — and the Navy’s worst ever.

The next day, Ja­panese forces landed near Sin­ga­pore and in­vaded Thai­land. They seized Guam and in­vaded the Philip­pines on Dec. 10 and Burma on Dec. 11. They swept into Bri­tish Bor­neo and Hong Kong and took Wake Is­land just be­fore Christ­mas.

Eight U.S. battleships were sunk or dam­aged at Pearl Har­bor. The Amer­i­cans lost 169 planes to 29 Ja­panese. But per­haps the most im­por­tant tar­gets, three U.S. Pa­cific Fleet air­craft car­ri­ers, were out to sea on the day of the at­tack. They quickly formed the core of a Navy coun­ter­punch that blood­ied Ja­pan in the Coral Sea and won a turn­ing-point vic­tory at the Bat­tle of Mid­way that June.

Ward knew ten­sions be­tween the U.S. and Ja­pan were high — he had read a story about ne­go­ti­a­tions fal­ter­ing be­tween Ja­panese and Amer­i­can emis­saries in Wash­ing­ton — but there was no hint of war. He had good rea­son to read: he earned extra money with a pa­per route, throw­ing the Honolulu Ad­ver­tiser. It paid more than the Army, which cut him a $21-a-month check.

Ward was at the Post Ex­change be­fore dawn to col­lect his news­pa­pers, but the clock struck 6:30 a.m., and then 7, and they didn’t ar­rive. Shortly after 7:55 a.m., he saw the fighters.

“They were fly­ing in a for­ma­tion when they first came in and then they split up, of course, and they were div­ing in the air where I was at and I was pretty close,” Ward re­called this week. He be­gan try­ing to get back to his post at Di­a­mond Head, a phone ex­change he helped run as a Sig­nal Corps sol­dier.

“It shook me up, of course, and not hav­ing been ex­posed to any such thing like that, it kind of scared me,” Ward said. “But the first thing I thought of was go to my duty sta­tion. I didn’t have any in­struc­tions from any­body on any­thing. I was just by my­self.”

Like many sol­diers, sailors and air­men, Platt was asleep in his bunk. A ter­ri­ble but fa­mil­iar noise roused him and oth­ers at Schofield Bar­racks as ma­chine-gun bul­lets crashed through a win­dow a few feet away. He dived be­neath his bed.

Platt said he got to know the Ja­panese when he was sta­tioned there after the war.

“They’re peo­ple just like we are,” Platt said. “I don’t blame the Ja­panese peo­ple. The lead­ers are the ones I blame for it.”

St. John had just got­ten off the job with a fel­low sailor, Woodrow Strauss. They worked at a newly es­tab­lished air sta­tion that had three 180-foot-tall tow­ers on Ka­neohe Bay.

Plane after plane dropped bombs in the dis­tance be­fore one en­emy pi­lot flew closer and eye­balled him. But he had to avoid the tow­ers — “oth­er­wise he would have cut me in two,” St. John said.

“That’s the only thing that saved me.”

Photos by Bob Owen / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Ken­neth Platt, left, talks with fel­low Pearl Har­bor sur­vivor Wil­liam St. John fol­low­ing a lun­cheon Fri­day in their honor.

A photo of Richard An­der­son, a Pearl Har­bor sur­vivor who died last year, is at the lun­cheon ta­ble.

Bob Owen / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Re­tired Ma­jor Gen. Al­fred Valen­zuela, with Pearl Har­bor sur­vivor Ra­dioman 1st Class Wil­liam St. John, ad­dresses a gath­er­ing of Pearl Har­bor fam­ily mem­bers at the Barn Door on Fri­day.

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