Pearl Harbor survivors remember the pain Marylanders get commemorative medals at Annapolis ceremony.

November 18, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

Simon J. Knaggs had just sent the eight ball speeding across the pool table when the first bomb exploded outside.

"The eight ball went into the pocket and that was the end of the game," he said, and the beginning of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Knaggs was 18 at the time, stationed at an Army barracks at Pearl Harbor. He ran outside and saw fighter planes strafing the base. Bullets ripped into the wall about an inch from his head.

Fifty years later, Knaggs says, "I can still see everything right now, the planes, the men dying."

Yesterday, he saw some of the men who, like him, survived the attack and lived to fight in World War II. Knaggs, who lives in Silver Spring, was one of 241 survivors of attack on Pearl Harbor who were awarded the 50th Anniversary Congressional Commemorative Medal yesterday at the Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis.

It's a bronze medal. One side depicts the USS Arizona exploding in flames. The other bears an eagle and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's description of Dec. 7, 1941, as "a date which will live in infamy."

Congress authorized the medal last year, to be given to Pearl Harbor survivors in each state around the time of the 50th anniversary of the attack. Yesterday was the ceremony for Maryland's survivors. Most of the medals went to living survivors, but some went to the next of kin of those who have since died.

Betty-Rogers Wanat of Columbia received one for her husband Frank, who died in 1967. At Pearl Harbor, he was part of a Navy band gathered on the foredeck of the USS California, waiting to play for Sunday religious services.

Along with others on the deck, he jumped into the water, carrying his trombone, and swam ashore, according to his widow.

Forever after, "it's a sad day," said Mrs. Wanat as she waited under the chapel dome for the service to begin. "It reminds me that our defenses are still being laid bare," she said, comparing American unpreparedness for the attack in 1941 with the current dismantling of some American defenses since the recent end of the Cold War.

"Remember Pearl Harbor -- Keep America Alert" is the motto the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, a national group with 12,000 members that made a project of winning congressional approval of the medal.

The men speaking and listening at the ceremony remembered, their outrage still fresh over what happened at Pearl Harbor.

Gerald Glaubitz, national president of the survivors' association, read the words to a march that depicted explosions aboard ships, men being blown to pieces. "That's the Pearl Harbor we remember," Glaubitz said, "an act of treachery and deceit by the Japanese government. We do not forget."

The men who lived through Pearl Harbor are still wary of the Japanese. As Japan, now an ally, triumphs over the United States in global economic competition, these men remember that Japan was once the enemy.

"I just get a cold, cold feeling when I see them," said Jack Wagner, 73, of Bowie, who was a gunner and radio operator in a bomber group stationed at Hickam Field, an Army air base near the harbor. Japan lost the war, Wagner said, as he stood on the steps outside the chapel, dressed like his comrades in a white Pearl Harbor service cap. "But they won everything else, like the economy, but that's our own fault."

Anthony J. DiLorenzo, state chairman of the survivors association, said, "I won't buy a Japanese car." His memory of watching the USS Oklahoma roll over, of being aboard a ship that rose partially out of the water and splashed down after being hit by a torpedo, is too vivid.

DiLorenzo said he had invited Maryland's governor, two senators and House delegation to the ceremony, but only Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th, agreed to come. Others offered to send aides in their place, but DiLorenzo refused.

"These are congressional medals issued by Congress," he said, "and I wanted a congressman to give them out."

Knaggs, the man who sank the eight ball as the first bombs hit American soil, said afterward that the ceremony forced memories through his mind and nearly brought tears to his eyes.

If his country needed him again, "I'd do the same . . . thing," Knaggs said. But when he remembers Pearl Harbor, and its images float before him, "I tell you," he says, "I wish it never happened."

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