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For Pa. vet, Pearl Harbor is always near

Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941, was payday. By the time various deductions were made, John Joniec and his Army buddies in Schofield Barracks had little mad money left.

John Joniec stands next to a flag on his front porch in his Philadelphia home. (Bonnie Weller / Staff Photographer )
John Joniec stands next to a flag on his front porch in his Philadelphia home. (Bonnie Weller / Staff Photographer )Read more

Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941, was payday. By the time various deductions were made, John Joniec and his Army buddies in Schofield Barracks had little mad money left.

So they spent the day hanging out, shooting the breeze. About 11 p.m., they hit the sack.

At 5 a.m. the next day, they were awakened by a squawking loudspeaker summoning them to regular anti-sabotage duty. They were told to dress in their field uniforms, draw their rifles and ammo, eat breakfast, and be ready to depart by 8 a.m. There was much grumbling and griping.

Shortly before 8 a.m., the 22-year-old Joniec and his fellow soldiers were sitting on the porch of the barracks when they heard a loud boom.

"Damn Navy on maneuvers," Joniec thought.

John Joniec's brick rowhouse in Port Richmond today is distinguished by the small flags propped in the living room windows and a sticker on the front door that reads: "Remember Pearl Harbor."

Joniec can never forget. He is reminded of it every waking moment by constant ringing in his ears. The Bells of St. Mary's is how he refers to his ailment, a play on the title of the 1945 movie starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman.

The everlasting ringing is a souvenir of the Japanese surprise attack Dec. 7, 1941, 68 years ago tomorrow.

"Roosevelt called it a day that will live in infamy, and I have never forgotten it," says Joniec, sitting at his dining room table, in the same field uniform shirt he wore that day.

Joniec (pronounced JONE-YAK), a retired maintenance man and building superintendent, is a life member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Membership in the group reached a peak of about 13,500 in 1993. It has dwindled to about 3,500 today, including Joniec, who has made it his life mission to make sure we never forget.

Such is his determination that in 1969, he protested the U.S. visit of a Japanese official who helped plan the attack.

Last month, Joniec, convivial and animated, turned 90. He is increasingly hard of hearing, and, in his words, "my mind is slipping away."

Yet when it comes to recalling his Pearl Harbor experiences, his memory is as vivid as if the events occurred yesterday.

It began at a party in March 1941, when Joniec and neighborhood buddy Bill Matrasek impulsively decided to join the Army infantry.

"We were single and energetic and looking for adventure," Joniec explains. "We wanted to see the world."

After enlisting in April, Joniec was sent to Fort Slocum, N.Y., then by troop train to San Francisco, where he boarded a ship for Hawaii. He was quartered in Schofield Barracks, about 10 miles from Pearl Harbor.

A squadron swoops down

Within seconds of the loud boom that Joniec mistook for naval exercises that Sunday morning, a squadron of fighter planes swooped down through a mountain pass and over the palm trees. Painted on the underside of the wings were red circles.

"Japs!" someone shouted.

A scene from his boyhood in the early '30s flashed to mind. He and his father are on the docks in Port Richmond, watching scrap iron and steel being loaded onto ships bound for Japan. His father warns: "Someday they're going to use that stuff against you guys."

Joniec also recalled a prescient line he had penned in a letter to his girlfriend, Anne Sysol, just months before: "We expect to be in action soon, that being with Japan."

With rifles and ammo in hand, Joniec and his fellow soldiers reacted instinctively. With no officer present to authorize retaliation, they shot at the bombarding planes.

"They say that 'at dawn we slept.' That's just not true. We were awake and fought back with everything we had."

The unit's supply sergeant rushed out with a machine gun. Coming out of storage, the weapon was empty of essential cooling water.

"Hey, that doesn't have water in it!" Joniec warned. "It will melt in nothing flat."

He ran into the kitchen, filled a pot, and grabbed a funnel.

Just then, a Japanese fighter plane dived low and strafed the barracks. Joniec, pouring water into the gun, cocked his head close to the barrel to avoid the whizzing bullets, while the sergeant blasted through a full belt of ammo.

The rapid, repeated concussion battered Joniec's eardrum, permanently damaging his auditory nerves. From that moment on, Joniec would never again hear the sound of silence.

After the attack, Joniec remembers weeping civilians flocking to the base hospital, soldiers and officers racing back to the post in commandeered vehicles. Later that day, he was sent to Wheeler Field, where rows of parked airplanes had been bombed. There, in pouring rain, he dug ditches and foxholes, helping set up a perimeter guard.

More than 84,000 service personnel were within three miles of Oahu on that terror-filled day that propelled the United States into World War II. The attack destroyed or grounded nearly 350 aircraft, and 21 ships were sunk or badly damaged. More than 2,400 Americans were killed, including 68 civilians.

Joniec would later string barbed wire and plant dynamite to defend the beaches of Hawaii. He shipped out to Australia and pursued Japanese troops on several South Pacific islands, including New Guinea, where, during an ambush, for the first and only time in his life, he saw a man drop and die from bullets fired from his own rifle.

Evolution of an activist

Discharged from the Army in 1945, Joniec married Anne, the neighborhood girl who caught his eye at a church bazaar before the war. He became president of his union local and a member of the executive board of the Service Employees International Union. He and his wife reared three children.

On Feb. 24, 1969, Joniec spotted an item in The Inquirer stating that the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Md., was planning to welcome as "a distinguished visitor" Gen. Minoru Genda, who had planned the air attack on Pearl Harbor.

Incensed, Joniec immediately began lobbying against what he perceived as a grievous insult and dispatched a telegram to the U.S. Naval Academy:


The institute was unaffiliated with the Naval Academy, Joniec was informed, and Genda was invited as part of a 21-day lecture tour and would receive no military honors.

Nevertheless, such was his outrage, and devotion to those who had perished, that Joniec persisted in protesting.

On March 1, 1969, Joniec and Cornelius Maartense, Pennsylvania state chairman of the survivors association, took a train to Washington to deliver a letter of protest to John Chafee, secretary of the Navy.

They composed the document on the train, and before reaching the Pentagon, they stopped at the Washington Post to tell their story to a reporter, who helpfully typed their handwritten complaint. At the Pentagon, a security guard at first tried to shoo them away. Joniec was indignant.

"Don't give me that B.S.," he said. "I fought in the war. Either call this guy, or I'll make a big fuss."

Word was relayed to the secretary's office, whereupon an aide appeared and accepted the letter.

At Union Station, before heading back to Philadelphia, Joniec purchased souvenirs for his three children depicting the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. When he got home and presented the souvenirs, he noticed these words on the back: "Made in Japan."

A few days later, Joniec received a letter from the Navy acknowledging his concern.

"General Genda is not coming here to be honored, but simply to give talks on his military experiences . . .," the letter said. "He is in a unique position to stimulate our military thinking, and that is the only purpose of having him here."

Joniec was unimpressed and unappeased. In the weeks that followed, he savored news articles about how Genda's visit was shadowed by threats.

"I was elated," Joniec says, "because he did not deserve respect."

In 2006, to mark the 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, his son, John, 61, a retired high school science teacher who lives in Lansdale, saluted his father in a poem titled "The Pineapple Soldier." One verse reads:

The Day of Infamy would sear

And forever ring in his ear

War is not a game or story.

Men find death. There is no glory.

About 10 years ago, Joniec's wife underwent surgery for a failing heart. The operation involved a new procedure and was performed at Temple University Hospital by a Japanese American surgeon, to whom Joniec is grateful. Without the operation, she would have died.

"I have no animosity toward the Japanese people," Joniec says. "My beef is with the people who planned the attack. I'll do anything I can to condemn what they did. I still feel that way. I'd protest it today, even in my weakened state."