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Remembering Pearl Harbor

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii - "Battle stations!!!"

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii - "Battle stations!!!"

The Klaxon's blare blew Jack McElroy out of his bunk on the Helm, a Navy destroyer in this ill-fated Pacific Ocean port.

The West Catholic High School graduate, newly minted as a petty officer, was dog tired after the midnight-to-4 a.m. watch at his post in the boiler room. He was barely asleep when the alarm sounded about 8 a.m. - and annoyed by what he thought was a drill.

"In peacetime, 'general quarters' on a Sunday morning was unheard of. And as far as I knew, we were still at peace," recalled McElroy, 87, born in Philadelphia and now living in Folsom, Delaware County.

As Japanese warplanes rained hundreds of bombs onto the U.S. fleet here - sinking battleships still tied to piers, destroying aircraft on the ground, killing and wounding more than 3,000 U.S. personnel - McElroy learned in a heartbeat what President Franklin D. Roosevelt would tell the world: This was no drill, it was the lightning-in-a-blue-sky attack that pulled the United States into World War II exactly 66 years ago today.

Remembering those war dead will be emotional today - from Montgomery County's Willow Grove Naval Air Station, where McElroy and the shrinking handful of Philadelphia-area Pearl Harbor survivors will bear witness, to this windswept Hawaiian harbor, where the commemoration will include a rare underwater interment of a Navy pilot whose cremated remains will be placed by divers into the sunken wreck of the Arizona.

The ship, sunk in 40 feet of water, is a national monument, visited by more than 1.5 million people a year. It is also the watery grave of nearly 1,000 sailors and Marines who were trapped when it sunk and whose bodies never were recovered.

Burial aboard ship

Only veterans who were assigned to the Arizona at the time of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack qualify for burial there. Those who served at other times aboard the ship built in 1916 have been allowed to have their ashes scattered on the water above the vessel. Since the first interment in 1982, only several dozen cremains have been carried down to the ravaged vessel to be placed inside.

Millard Ramsdell, a Navy ensign who flew reconnaissance missions in a single-engine OS2U "Kingfisher" float plane that had to be catapulted off the deck and was hoisted back aboard after landing on the sea, today is becoming the 30th person to have his remains united with his deceased shipmates.

The rite will include a bugler blowing taps, reservists sounding bells, a 21-gun salute by sailors dressed in bright "summer whites," divers moving in formation before receding silently below, and the presentation of a folded U.S. flag to Ramsdell's next of kin.

"These interments . . . close the circle" for these men, said National Park Service Superintendent Douglas Lentz, who oversees the Arizona memorial and lived in Manayunk when he began his career as a Liberty Bell ranger on Independence Mall for the bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987.

The ceremony is more than a tribute to the unique bond forged in calamity, Lentz said. "A lot of these guys served on the ship for years. They were like a fraternity. The survivors lived through hell together. At the same time, they have really fond memories of those who perished and want to be close to them."

A joint ceremony

The added twist this year is that Ramsdell, nicknamed "Mill," died 10 years ago, at 82, at his home in Oregon. His family held onto his ashes, awaiting the eventual death of his wife, Cathryn, nicknamed "Katie," who died in April at 91.

Now, in a joint ceremony attended by their son, Steve, their two daughters, Carol and Susie, several in-laws and a grandchild, Mill's remains will be committed to the ship; Katie's will be scattered at sea.

In many ways, Pearl Harbor seems the fitting resting place for the couple who lived through the bombardment together and carried the memory of that hellish Hawaiian morning for the rest of their lives.

College sweethearts in Oregon, they married in November 1940, shortly before Ramsdell shipped out to Oahu for assignment on the Arizona. Sailing over on the SS Monterey, Katie joined him five months later. They rented a basement apartment in Honolulu, just east of the Arizona's berth.

It was a time of tension over Nazi actions in Europe and Japanese activity in the South Pacific. But for the most part the Ramsdells were happy honeymooners, enjoying life in an exotic place, their children said. Mill loved flying. Katie served her country, too, working as a typist for a naval contractor.

An emergency appendectomy laid Mill up at the end of November 1941. He recuperated at home and was scheduled to return to duty aboard the Arizona at noon on Dec. 7.

But he awoke that Sunday to the sound of explosions and quickly learned that bombs and air-launched torpedoes were striking battleship row.

They piled into their 1927 Studebaker. Katie drove as Mill struggled into his gear. They saw smoke rising over the harbor and adjacent airfield.

Taking the wheel after dropping Katie at a friend's house, Mill turned and shouted: "I'll see you when I see you."

The scene is described in "Our Personal War Experiences," a 15-page private memoir Katie wrote in her final years, which the family shared with The Inquirer.

With the 608-foot Arizona engulfed in flames from a devastating strike on its ammunition hold, Ramsdell was - to quote Katie's memoir - "orphaned." His ship sank in nine minutes; many of his closest friends were dead.

Search for Japanese carriers

The Kingfisher he flew happened to be on Ford Island, in the center of the harbor; it was being serviced that day. Mill made his way there despite the mayhem. In one of the few planes able to take off, he joined a squadron of other orphans in search of the Japanese aircraft carriers that had launched the attack. Mounting a heavy machine gun onto his plane in preparation for the mission, he accidentally tore open the surgical scar from his appendectomy.

While Mill was airborne, Katie huddled in the dark by the radio, listening for news and following instructions to maintain a strict blackout.

What she didn't learn until midnight, after Mill had made his way home in a car with shielded headlights, was that an engine malfunction had caused his plane to burn fuel at a much higher than normal rate, curtailing his mission. He was forced to return to Pearl Harbor at dusk, flying low and on fumes, risking the chance of being shot down by friendly fire because he couldn't fly the normal recognition pattern.

After putting fresh bandages on his oozing incision, he returned to the base around dawn. Katie went to the commissary for sandwich fixings and coffee. She spent the day with other military wives, feeding the men who fought the fires and cleared debris.

At one point during the cleanup, Katie retrieved a two-by-three-inch piece of a Japanese plane that had been downed by artillery. The family liked to think that its red marking was part of the Japanese rising sun.

Mill's signature keepsake was the ceremonial sword issued to him as part of his Navy dress uniform. The saber went down with the ship; it later was salvaged along with personal effects, including a framed picture of Katie.

Years later, whenever Steve Ramsdell would ask his father about the war, the retired pilot, who rose to the rank of lieutenant commander, was generally taciturn.

"It was like he never really wanted to sit down and talk about it," said the son, 57, a computer programmer.

That's not unusual, said Glen Tomlinson, curator of a Honolulu museum devoted to Pearl Harbor's history.

"Some are very hesitant, very humble. 'I was just a kid. I was scared as hell.' You almost have to pull it out of them.

"But it is so important to keep these stories alive," he said. "Because once they are gone, they are gone, and the firsthand accounts we get from people now are worth their weight in gold."

Six months ago, as part of a Library of Congress project to preserve oral histories of World War II, some Philadelphia-area veterans were interviewed and videotaped at the studios of WHYY.

Jack McElroy, the Navy boilerman blasted from bed by the call to battle, was among them.

"I think somebody woke up. We were dying off. And they didn't know as much about this as they should have," said McElroy, who spent 20 years in the Navy, then managed a Catholic men's social club in Center City for 24 years.

Al Horanzy, 85, of Holmesburg, was a combat infantryman stationed at Schofield Barracks, an Army post on a rise 700 feet above Pearl Harbor. On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he dodged machine-gun fire as Japanese pilots strafed his barracks on their approach to the battleships.

As an armorer inside a munitions warehouse, he could have been blown sky-high.

But the Japanese pilots never hit the warehouse, he said. "They were saving their bombs for the grand prize, which was Pearl Harbor."

Survivors are dying

A recent past president of the Philadelphia-area chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors' Association, Horanzy said the rate of attrition among survivors has been escalating.

"We used to have 150 members. We're down to about 28 or 29 because they're passing away. When we have meetings, we're lucky if we can get four or five to come who aren't too sick," he said.

At 87, Mario Chiarolanza, an Army air corpsman at Pearl Harbor, is remarkably spry. A resident of Lafayette Hill, he still works part-time as a Montgomery County Courthouse tipstaff.

Born at 25th and Cambria Streets in North Philadelphia, Chiarolanza enlisted at 20 and trained as an airplane mechanic. In May 1941, he shipped out for Hawaii. As a corporal second class, he was the crew chief in charge of maintenance for the 72d Fighter Squadron.

Hawaii was "pretty nice duty" before the war, he said, and hell on that Dec. 7. He was walking to church when the Japanese attacked and took cover in a coconut grove.

"I saw the bombs dropping. I saw the airplanes exploding. I saw the guys dying. Yes, I've seen a lot," he said.

He went to Pearl Harbor last year for the 65th anniversary. He plans to be in Willow Grove today.

If he had the Ramsdell siblings in front of him, he said, he would tell them simply: "Be proud of your father forever. And thank you for his service."