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The Nation

Pearl Harbor survivors' 'final reunion'

December 07, 2006|Kirsten Scharnberg | Chicago Tribune

HONOLULU — Donald Robinett came directly to the sign-in area for Pearl Harbor survivors when he arrived here this week.

"I am trying to find my shipmates," the 89-year-old veteran said. "I want to see which ones are here."

A volunteer at the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn., one of the groups organizing the reunion to mark the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on U.S. forces here, flipped through a log book until she came to Robinett's ship, the Tracy, a small mine-laying vessel that was in port that infamous day. "Sir," she said sadly, patting the old man on his shoulder, "you're the only one here."

In the decades since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, countless survivors have made the journey back to Hawaii every five years to remember comrades who were lost and to catch up with those who lived. They drink scotch and tell war stories; they brag and weep. They often just sit together and say nothing at all.

But this year's reunion holds an urgency that hasn't been part of previous gatherings: Most Pearl Harbor survivors, nearing their 90s or already there, say it will be their final trip to this place that changed the course of their lives and their nation.

Event organizers, many of them children of survivors who are ailing or have died, pragmatically are calling this the "final reunion." And survivors' families, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, are coming along to the reunion to glimpse history through their loved one's eyes before the opportunity is gone.

"This is their last swan song," said Sue Marks, an event volunteer whose father, a Pearl Harbor survivor, died a decade ago. "They know that a lot of them either won't be around in five years or won't be physically able to make the long trip."

This morning, about 1,500 survivors, friends and family members will gather with 2,000 other guests and dignitaries for the 65th anniversary commemoration at Kilo Pier at Naval Station Pearl Harbor, looking out at the Arizona Memorial half a mile away.

An estimated 450 American survivors are in Honolulu. They are easy to spot by the hats they wear that announce "Pearl Harbor Survivor" and the ship or base where they were stationed on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese planes appeared through Oahu's Kolekole mountain pass to bomb U.S. forces.

Yet these numbers represent a fraction of the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 Pearl Harbor survivors still living, many gravely ill or too frail to travel. Over the last decade, the number attending these memorial events has dropped precipitously. The same is true of membership in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn., the largest national organization for survivors; chapters across the U.S. are closing as members die.

"We had more than 650 survivors come for the 60th anniversary out here five years ago," said George Sullivan, chairman of the Arizona Memorial Museum Assn. "Our numbers are falling fast."

The survivors in Honolulu this week, some in wheelchairs, collectively know one thing: They defied death 65 years ago, but the inevitable is creeping up on them. They know this from the pain in their backs and hips. They know this as their eyesight fades and their hearing fails.

"At our little happy hours each night you see the guys sitting alone who don't have any old shipmates to speak with because they've all died," said Debbie Marks, 35, who became involved in the survivors association because of her late grandfather. "I just spend the night walking around trying to get the ones who are alone to start talking to each other instead."

Not only do most of the survivors not expect to make it back to Hawaii for another reunion, they know that the memorial site will look dramatically different if they do. Plans call for ground to be broken Dec. 7, 2007, on a $50-million Pearl Harbor Memorial Museum and Visitor Center. The facility, which will take about two years to complete, will have interactive exhibits and twice the visitor capacity of the current site.

The new museum will have an increased focus on the people who have traveled to Hawaii this week: the survivors. Lists have long been compiled of service members who died in the attack, but historians for the first time are attempting to create a complete database of those who lived to tell their stories.

At hotels throughout Honolulu, audio booths were set up in the hopes of getting survivors to record their oral histories of the day of the attack. The project was launched two months ago and about 200 recordings have been collected.

At a reception Tuesday night, Henry Klump, 90, sat surrounded by a dozen family members. He has attended the Pearl Harbor reunion in Hawaii every five years since the early 1980s, but he worries that this may be his last.

Klump's family, all singers, surprised him by taking the stage and performing a song in his honor: the Judds' country-music hit that begins with the line, "Grandpa, tell me 'bout the good ol' days." Klump was teary-eyed at the song's end as he shouted to the crowd, "Those are my grandkids!"

That night, as all the festivities took place, Robinett continued to search for Tracy survivors, men like him who were unharmed by the bombs and later sent to be stretcher bearers on the battleship Pennsylvania, where 29 people were either killed or missing in action. But as the hours passed, no one else showed up.

"They better hurry up," Robinett said, crestfallen. "I don't have much longer to wait."

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