‘I crossed my fin­gers — and made it’

Pearl Har­bor sur­vivor re­calls a na­tion at war

Stamford Advocate - - Front Page - By Robert Marchant

As the na­tion re­mem­bers Pearl Har­bor, and the U.S. en­try into World War II, Floyd Welch has his own me­mories.

An elec­tri­cian’s mate on the USS Mary­land docked at the Hawai­ian naval base on Dec. 7, 1941, Welch was com­ing out of the shower when he no­ticed some muf­fled noises. Then an alarm was sounded, and be­fore long, he and his ship­mates were at their bat­tle sta­tions. Then they were at war.

“Very few of us knew what was go­ing on,” re­called Welch, an East Lyme res­i­dent who will turn 98 in Fe­bru­ary. He has in­deli­ble me­mories of that date, ex­actly 77 years ago, which trans­formed the lives of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans.

“When I stuck my head out of the foc­sle, there was a bat­tle­ship on it side,” Welch re­called, de­scrib­ing the dam­age in­flicted on the USS Ok­la­homa. His own ship was hit by two bombs, and the im­age of those ship­mates killed on Dec. 7 have stayed with him for a life­time.

Welch made it through the en­tire war on the Mary­land, in­clud­ing close calls in naval bat­tles off the Philip­pines and Ok­i­nawa. “I crossed my fin­gers — and made it,” said Welch, “And I’m proud of my ser­vice.”

Welch took part in an an­niver­sary cer­e­mony Thurs­day, at a ded­i­ca­tion of the open­ing of the Pearl Har­bor Me­mo­rial Park in New Haven.

Few sur­vivors of the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor are still liv­ing, and the na­tion is far re­moved from the gal­va­niz­ing im­pact it had on a na­tion un­ac­cus­tomed to war.

“If I were to ask most of my stu­dents, what Pearl Har­bor Day is, they could tell me fac­tu­ally, more or less what hap­pened on Dec. 7, 1941,” said Matt Pavia, an au­thor and ed­u­ca­tor. “But what I can say with rea­son­able cer­tainty, is that I’m sure teenagers to­day can’t grasp what it that date meant to any­one who was alive then, what it was like to live through that day.”

The at­tack killed 2,403 and wounded 1,178, in­clud­ing 17 men from Con­necti­cut. Stam­ford res­i­dents Vin­cent Ho­ran, an avi­a­tion me­chanic at Wheeler Field, and Wil­liam Thomas O’Neill Jr., an en­sign on the USS Ari­zona, were killed in the at­tack. Bridge­port lost two men in the raid: Ge­orge Povesko

was killed on­board the USS Ari­zona, and Felix We­grzyn, serv­ing in the Army Air Corps, who was killed at Hickam Field. Ge­orge Smith of New Haven, an Army Air Corps pri­vate, also died at Hickam Field.

Pavia, a teacher at Darien High School who co-au­thored a new book on Stam­ford in the Viet­nam era, said few Amer­i­cans to­day of any age could un­der­stand the im­pact that Pearl Har­bor had on a gen­er­a­tion, and its af­ter­math. To­tal war is a con­cept for­eign to the cul­ture of 2018, he said.

“We live in a time when our armed forces are com­prised of a mi­cro­scopic per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion,” Pavia said. “In the 1940s, when the Ja­panese at­tacked and war was de­clared the next day, vir­tu­ally ev­ery per­son in Amer­ica di­rectly im­pacted. Young men were sign­ing up, par­ents were send­ing kids over­seas, broth­ers and sis­ters were say­ing good-bye, it was a war that af­fected ev­ery­one. That just doesn’t hap­pen any­more.”

Con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, the au­thor said, has lit­tle in com­mon with Amer­i­can so­ci­ety in 1941. “We live in a ma­te­ri­ally com­fort­able so­ci­ety, where we’re used to hav­ing an abun­dance around us, of phys­i­cal com­fort and ma­te­rial possession. I don’t think any of us are any longer con­di­tioned to the idea of com­mu­nal sac­ri­fice in the way the World War II gen­er­a­tion was,” Pavia con­cluded.

The at­tack on Pearl Har­bor changed ev­ery­thing in Con­necti­cut, as it did for the rest of the coun­try.

The fear of sab­o­tage and fol­low-up at­tacks con­sumed law-en­force­ment all over the re­gion. Guards were posted around the clock at the Cos Cob power sta­tion, which kept the trains run­ning from New York to New Haven. Air-raid war­dens were posted across Long Is­land Sound, en­sur­ing to­tal dark­ness in the night­time hours. Ja­panese and Ger­man na­tion­als were picked up and de­tained for ques­tion­ing by lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cers and FBI agents. A sand­wich shop called the Triple Decker, owned by a Ja­panese im­mi­grant, Junzo “Junior” No­jima, was van­dal­ized in Stam­ford — but a group of lo­cal cit­i­zens turned out to help him clean up the dam­age, and he re­mained in the city for years af­ter­ward.

The Navy re­cruit­ing sta­tion, a post of­fice in South Norwalk, was mobbed with re­cruits, most of whom were turned away be­cause they were too old for ser­vice. Gov. Robert Hur­ley shut down all pri­vate avi­a­tion in the state.

The at­tack at Pearl Har­bor trans­formed the re­gion in other ways, bol­ster­ing its sta­tus as an in­dus­trial powerhouse. War­time in­dus­try ran full shifts turn­ing out ma­te­rial by the bargeload.

Felt made in Green­wich lined army boots for cold­weather com­bat. Mil­lions of rounds of .30-cal­iber ri­fle and ma­chine gun bul­lets poured off the line at the Rem­ing­ton Arms Co. in Bridge­port. Cor­sair fighter planes roared over­head on test flights from the Chance Vought fac­tory in Strat­ford. At the Lud­ers boat-build­ing fac­tory in the South End of Stam­ford, a sign out­side read “Re­mem­ber Pearl Har­bor.”

Those mo­ments now only ex­ist in his­tory books or faded news­pa­per clips for all but a few men and women now in their 90s or above.

Jeff DeWitt, an Air Force vet­eran from Norwalk, said Dec. 7 was a turn­ing point in his­tory, one that should be re­mem­bered 77 years later.

“It was a day that de­fined a gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­cans and changed the world. Ser­vice, sac­ri­fice and valor were demon­strated by Amer­i­can he­roes at un­prece­dented lev­els and fore­shad­owed the tri­als, tough­ness and grit that epit­o­mized that Great­est Gen­er­a­tion dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.”

DeWitt, who is ac­tive with the Amer­i­can Le­gion Post in Norwalk, took part in a re­cent Pearl Har­bor com­mem­o­ra­tion this week, an obli­ga­tion he felt a duty to carry out. “We have to tell the story of the gen­er­a­tions be­fore us so they’re not for­got­ten,” he said. “This is an im­por­tant story — and pos­si­bly the most im­por­tant.”

As­so­ci­ated Press file pho­tos

The bat­tle­ship USS Ari­zona belches smoke as it top­ples over into the sea dur­ing a Ja­panese sur­prise at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.

Chris­tian Abra­ham / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Floyd Welch, 97, of East Lyme,is the last liv­ing Pearl Har­bor sur­vivor in Con­necti­cut.

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