Never so few veterans as now to remember Pearl Harbor day

December 07, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Today at noon, the old vets will lay a wreath in Annapolis in remembrance of Pearl Harbor. They'll read the names of comrades who survived the attack 66 years ago, but not the ever quickening march of time since last they gathered.

At 15, the number of Pearl Harbor survivors in the state who have died in the past year might well exceed the number able to attend the ceremony. So it goes these days, as the World War II generation ages and exits, taking with it a direct link to an era that grows even more distant with their passing.

"I'm the youngster of the group," Clarence Davis said ruefully. He's 84 years old.

Davis has been president of the Maryland Pearl Harbor Survivors Association for three consecutive terms, a testament to his leadership skills but perhaps also to the fact that so many of his fellow members are in nursing homes or otherwise unable to keep the group going.

The group had as many as 300 members as recently as about 15 years ago, Davis said, but now it's down to fewer than 75. The association's two chapters in Maryland have merged into a single statewide one. Davis is in search of another flag bearer - to represent the group at ceremonial events at Arlington National Cemetery - because the one who has shared the duty with him is "quite beat up now." And in his own county, St. Mary's, where once there were 12 Pearl Harbor survivors, only Davis lives to soldier on.

It's much the same picture everywhere, of course - the national survivors group decided that last year's anniversary gathering at Pearl Harbor would be the last in Hawaii. The group would meet there every five years, but now it's just too hard for the survivors, most of whom are in their 80s and 90s, to travel so far.

Davis remains in pretty good shape, playing golf several times a week during good weather and organizing the Maryland group's annual picnic, its quarterly meetings and, of course, the Dec. 7 commemoration.

For the past several years, every November, Davis has called me. We've never met in person, and we never talk any other time of the year, but as soon as I hear his voice, I think, huh, another year somehow has passed. He'll ask for the newsroom's fax number so that he can send an announcement about the ceremony in Annapolis. He'll urge that we cover it.

The ceremony is on the same day and at the same time every year - Dec. 7, at noon, because that's the day and the approximate time when the attack occurred (in Hawaii, it was 7:55 a.m.) - but Davis well knows that this date that was supposed to live in infamy becomes less infamous with each passing year. So he calls, and he faxes.

Davis was just 18 years old, with less than a year in the Navy, on Dec. 7, 1941. Trained as a radio operator, he instead was working a stint on mess duty aboard his ship, the USS Medusa.

It was Sunday morning. He had fed one table of sailors and was staring idly out a porthole as he awaited the next hungry group. Suddenly, he heard a loud blast and saw a huge ball of fire. He thought it was an accident, maybe one of the tankers exploding. Soon, though, it would become clear -the Japanese had launched a surprise attack on the home base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The Medusa was strafed but sustained no heavy damage, and all but a couple of its crew of about 400 escaped injury. All around, though, was mayhem - Davis saw a Japanese plane crash into a seaplane tender, the USS Curtiss, and watched as the battleship USS Nevada, damaged and under attack as it headed out of the harbor, was purposely run aground to avoid being sunk and blocking the channel.

By the time the attack ended, about 2,400 were dead.

"That was my last day of mess," Davis said dryly. The Medusa was a repair ship - "We could repair anything from a wristwatch to a battleship" - and so its task was clear and its crew began working on the damaged vessels in the harbor. A day after the attack, the U.S. declared war on Japan.

In early 1943, having done all the repair work it could, the Medusa was sent farther into the Pacific, working out of the New Hebrides islands, New Guinea, Guadalcanal and elsewhere.

"When the ships got banged up there," Davis said, "we'd repair them." Davis was part of the invasion of Okinawa and was aboard the attack transport USS Garrard when it landed troops in Tokyo Bay in August 1945 to start the occupation of Japan.

So, Davis notes with much satisfaction, he was there when the U.S. entered the war, and he was there when it ended.

"We would have had ringside seats for the signing of the peace treaty," he said, "but they sent us to Sendai."

There, about 200 miles north of Tokyo, they liberated the POW camps. Many of the prisoners, suffering under the deplorable conditions of the Japanese camps, had to be taken aboard specially equipped hospital ships, but those who were in better shape were transported to freedom on Davis' ship.

Davis made the Navy his career and retired in Charlotte Hall in Southern Maryland.

There was a brief and temporary flurry of interest in Pearl Harbor six years ago, Davis said, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks reminded Americans of the last time they were struck at home. Now, with the passing of so many of his fellow World War II servicemen, he feels even more urgency about keeping Pearl Harbor alive in memory.

Having spent the war in Hawaii or overseas, he was interested in seeing filmmaker Ken Burns' World War II documentary on PBS this fall to see the scenes from the home front during those years when he was away. The contrast to today struck him.

"All the civilians got out, and they did something to support the cause," he said. "We don't have that anymore."

The Maryland chapter of Pearl Harbor Survivors Association will hold its remembrance day ceremony at noon today at the state's World War II Memorial, Route 450 at the Naval Academy Bridge, 1920 Ritchie Highway, Annapolis.

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