A last devotion at Pearl Harbor
It was 65 years ago, but memories burn. Today in Hawaii, it's the final call for aging survivors.
Bill Snow, 86, has withered to 111 pounds. He can't see well enough to pour a glass of water. His eight cracked vertebrae cause him to groan with every exhalation.
None of that, though, could keep him from getting back to Pearl Harbor for today's 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack.
For the last month, he got out of his wheelchair and practiced with a walker, hobbling up and down his street in Huntingdon Valley. Then, after two steroid injections into his spine, he flew 15 hours Saturday with his family to Hawaii.
The pilot and crew saluted him on the plane. People at the arrival gate in Hawaii applauded as he passed in his wheelchair.
Snow wants to be with the last few veterans alive like him. Men who remember, who understand. He knows this will be his last visit to Pearl, possibly his last Dec. 7.
"I want to go for the men, the memories," Snow said. "There's not many of us left. "
Jack McElroy, 87, a survivor from Folsom, Delaware County, also flew back to Pearl.
"It's hard to pin down," he explained before leaving Monday, "but when you're almost killed with somebody, it seems like you do have an attachment to them. "
Only 5,000 of the 70,000 soldiers and sailors stationed at Pearl Harbor are still alive. For many, the memories of those 90 minutes when 350 Japanese bombers and fighter planes struck are just as haunting today as they were 65 years ago.
The attack, at 7:53 a.m., left 2,471 Americans dead, 1,178 wounded, and 18 ships sunk, including five battleships, and 188 aircraft destroyed.
About 400 of the survivors have registered for the 7:40 a.m. memorial service in Pearl Harbor, featuring a keynote address by Tom Brokaw, author of the best-selling book The Greatest Generation.
Today will mark the last official gathering in Hawaii of Pearl Harbor survivors. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association has decided that the men now are just too old, too frail and too few.
Pennsylvania once had six chapters of the group, but all have folded except Philadelphia's Liberty Bell chapter, founded in 1966, said Paul Moyer of Pottstown, the state chairman.
Perhaps two dozen Philadelphia-area survivors will travel to the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove for its annual Pearl Harbor Day ceremony at noon, which is not open to the public.
Irvin Gerben, 83, wanted to go to Hawaii for one last aloha but instead will be lifted from his nursing-home bed in Feasterville and driven to Willow Grove. He also knows this could be his last Pearl Harbor Day.
"It's very important I get there," said Gerben, an aerial gunner in 1941 who has had repeated strokes and heart attacks. "I started [the Liberty Bell chapter], and I've been every year except last year. And I was in bed last year and couldn't walk. It's important that I go and I see who's left. "
Mary Hairston, 86, will catch a ride to Willow Grove. This will be the first time in 30 years she will not be sitting beside her husband, Jim, the only African American member of the Liberty Bell chapter. She buried him in August.
Jim Hairston, a steward, shined shoes and folded laundry in the Navy, except on Dec. 7, when he fished dead and wounded sailors out of Pearl Harbor.
Hairston served 20 years in the Navy, going to the South Pole with Adm. Richard Byrd. He knew that his service - cooking and cleaning - made it possible for other African Americans eventually to become generals and admirals.
Local survivors have become family, attending monthly meetings, an annual picnic, the annual memorial service - and, more and more often, one another's funerals.
Bill Snow, a machinist's mate stationed on the Cummings, was ordered up the ship's smokestack in the midst of the attack.
His memory is hazy now, and he's too weak to tell his story in detail. But years ago, he wrote down this account:
"I had eaten breakfast at 0730 and went topside aft around 0756 for colors and muster. I noted several explosions at Ford Island Naval Air Station and at Wheeler Field where our fighters were located. I soon saw several torpedo planes making runs on our battleships. . . .
"General quarters sounded. . . . I loaded 50-caliber machine gun belts during the first wave of the attack. Then I was ordered along with a shipmate to remove the canvas cover from the #2 fire room smoke stack. A ladder attached to the stack was used to get to the top. . . . I was on the aft side of the stack untying and throwing the canvas cover over to my ship when the second wave of enemy planes attack at around 0855.
"Dive bombers dropped bombs and then strafed with machine guns. Several rounds of bullets struck the smoke stack a few inches under the catwalk that I was standing on. . . . I jumped down to the gundeck. "
The ship was damaged but made it out to sea and pursued the enemy. Snow was given a commendation for his "coolness, courage and efficiency under fire. "
He spent six years in the Navy, serving on ships at Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. He hasn't missed a year at the Willow Grove service since he joined the survivors group.
After the Navy, he built a handsome, wood-beamed home for his wife and three children by hand. It is filled with many American flags, bald-eagle replicas and Navy mementos. The front-door mat says, "Welcome Aboard. "
His wife, Dee, 84, spent last Friday packing her husband's pain patches, his inhalers, his syringes so he can inject himself for arthritis.
And also his Hawaiian shirts.
Gerben was an aerial gunner based at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay.
He was sitting down to breakfast in the mess hall when somebody yelled that the Army was attacking them.
"I figured, the guys are crazy," Gerben recalled from his nursing-home bed. "Then another plane come by and I see more shooting. Another fellow says, that's Japanese. You can see the rising sun on it . . . "
An announcement was made for all hands to report to the airplane hangars. Just as Gerben did, a bomb hit his hangar, where depth charges happened to be stored, he said.
"It just blew our hangar apart," he recalled. "Nothing left to it. "
He was covered with debris - and bodies.
"I remember yelling for help," he recalled. "I don't know why. Nobody was moving. They were all on top of me. I push myself out, I ran outside to get help. And there was an officer, yelling for help. I reached down to help him, I placed my hands under him, and he was all blood and mush. "
"You remember it like it was yesterday. Yeah, you can't forget. "
Gerben, who lived in Northeast Philadelphia until moving into the nursing home, has had several strokes and heart attacks. He has diabetes, and had a mass removed from his spine last year.
His wife, Ruth, who met him when she was 10 and he was 12, has moved into an apartment adjacent to his nursing home. She fretted for weeks about how she would get her husband to Willow Grove today. Bucks County paratransit will take them both, but at first she had difficulty getting approval.
"They wouldn't OK it unless they had proof of age," she said. "I kept telling them he was a Pearl Harbor survivor. How could he be younger than 65? "
Ruth Gerben, who has been treated for breast cancer, was determined.
"It may be the last big thing I can do for him," she said.
Mario Chiarolanza was on his way to church when the bombing started. "The first words to come out of my mouth was, 'Roosevelt, you son of a bitch. ' "
"We were sold out by Roosevelt and Churchill to get us into that war," he said.
Chiarolanza, 86, of Lafayette Hill, remembers that in the days leading up to the attack, planes had been safely dispersed all over the island. Ammunition and weapons were accessible and ready.
But then it was decided to bring the planes back, clustered together and an easy target.
"We knew they were going to attack us. I knew it. I was told by my squadron commander that we would be in the war by Christmas. "
When the bombing started, he said, all the rifles and ammunition were locked up. Nothing they could do. Many men in his unit were killed and injured.
Chiarolanza is in good health, and works as a tipstaff at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown. Today he is in Pearl Harbor with his wife, children and grandchildren.
"It's the 65th anniversary and probably the last convention," he said. "I'm 86 years old. How many more years can we go?"
Bill Snow has struggled this week in Hawaii. And he's had some incredible moments, according to his family, who have called and e-mailed with reports.
He met an old shipmate from the Cummings. They debated attending a session featuring former Japanese pilots, talking from their perspective. Snow found this "unnerving," according to his daughter, Sherry Snow. Her father's old shipmate, she said, approached one of the Japanese flyers and said, "I tried to shoot you down, but I missed. "
Snow watched the Eagles win on Monday and has been resting in anticipation of the big day. He's been taking a lot of pain medicine, his daughter said.
"He's in a wheelchair," his daughter said yesterday. "Everything is tile floors and bumpy, and you can't go too far without him being hurt. But there's a lot of excitement. We can hardly go anywhere without people young and old shaking his hand, taking his picture. "
Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or email@example.com