Vivid memories of infamy Survivors: Members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association belong to one of the most exclusive of veterans organizations.

December 07, 1996|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

When West Point cadets and Annapolis midshipmen stand to "Remember Pearl Harbor" at today's Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, the nation's future military leaders will be marking an historical event.

But another group of men and women will board the Coast Guard cutter Roger B. Taney in Baltimore's Inner Harbor this morning with living memories of Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan's sneak attack on Hawaii hurled the United States into the furnace of World War II.

For the first time, Joseph L. Alsop, 75, of Towson will be among them -- a new member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association (PHSA), marking what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a "day of infamy."

Alsop was a sailor that Sunday morning aboard the USS Boggs, an old four-stack destroyer converted to minesweeping, which was patrolling off Oahu when the Japanese air attack came just before 8 o'clock.

"We could see what was going on, the planes flying over and the fire and smoke. We dropped depth charges once or twice, but I don't know if anything was there," said Alsop, who worked below, in the boiler room.

The Boggs was the first ship back into Pearl Harbor after the attack. "Everything was still burning when we came in, it was a sight I'll never forget," said Alsop, who later participated in the D-Day landing in Normandy, June 6, 1944.

Despite such vivid memories, Alsop joined the survivors' association only last year.

"I never thought anything about it until I got a letter from the U.S.S. Boggs Association about a reunion of men who had served on her and they mentioned the Survivors," said Alsop, who served 12 years in the Navy.

Still adding members

PHSA gains a few new members each year even as the number of surviving Pearl Harbor and World War II veterans declines, said Edward T. Robertson, 75, of Essex, who is in charge of today's memorial.

Some have learned of the group only recently, while others never took time to join, said Robertson. PHSA, founded in 1958, has 10,536 members nationally and 196 in Maryland, he said.

They represent a generation that has had a greater social and economic impact on the United States than any since the generation that fought the Revolutionary War, said Paul Joseph Travers, 45, author of "Eyewitness to Infamy: An Oral History of Pearl Harbor."

Travers, a security analyst for the Army, said that he no longer emphasizes the military aspect of Pearl Harbor and the war in talks to civic and school groups, but focuses on the men and women of that generation and their contributions to the country.

The slogan, "Remember Pearl Harbor," has become an historical relic like "Remember the Alamo" and "Remember the Maine," said Travers, a Parkton resident, "but if we forget our past, we won't find our future."

Disappointed veterans

Veterans and members of the wartime generation are extremely frustrated, said Travers. They say they worked hard -- and fought hard -- to build a strong country and to give their children a better future; they now wonder what went wrong.

"Look at the generation of the 1990s; jobs are going out of the country, crime, drugs and illegitimacy are rampant and there is moral decay," he said. "Everyone is going to their ethnic roots, so we have forgotten our collective past as a nation."

Organizations such as the PHSA help keep that collective memory alive. Roger K. Thomas, 76, of Frederick, is among the group's newest members, having joined last year.

"I really didn't realize there was such an organization," said the former aviation radioman who left the Navy as a chief petty officer and retired in 1976 after a career as a telephone company engineer.

"They're a great bunch of people. It's not like the Masons or the Elks; it's a group of people who were at a certain place at a certain time, and if you weren't there, you can't get in," Thomas said.

Lee Gray, 81, is another new member and will attend a Pearl Harbor service at his Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Ocean City.

Gray may have survived the Dec. 7 attack only because he was on liberty in Honolulu -- not aboard his ship, USS Vestal, a repair ship set ablaze by Japanese bombs at its mooring alongside the battleship Arizona.

When the Arizona blew up, the blast extinguished the Vestal's fires like a candle snuffer, and a Navy tugboat hauled the Vestal away from the stricken battleship. A white memorial now spans the remains of the Arizona -- most of whose 1,177 lost sailors and Marines are still entombed there.

Gray said that when he finally reached the base, a gunner's mate handed him and another sailor an old Lewis machine gun.

"He gave us a quick course on the machine gun and stationed us at the edge of the water," Gray recalled. "You could see where the [battleship] Oklahoma was turned over and the smoke and fire from the Arizona."

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