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Pearl Harbor attack survivors reflect on 81st anniversary

New footage from the Associated Press shows the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks. (British Movietone/YouTube)

Ira “Ike ” Schab, now 102 years old, joined fellow survivors and members of the community Wednesday at Pearl Harbor National Memorial for the commemoration of the 81st anniversary of the attack hosted by the National Park Service and the Navy.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Ira “Ike ” Schab was a sailor aboard the USS Dobbin docked at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. He was getting ready for the day when planes from the Imperial Japanese Navy launched their surprise attack.

“We just said to ourselves, ‘what are we gonna do ?'” he recalled. “There was no place to go, and we just hoped they missed us.”

Schab wasn’t trained to operate the ship’s weapons—he was a Navy musician who played the tuba. But he began ferrying ammo for machine gunners as Japanese forces dropped bombs around them. The Dobbin wasn’t hit, but during the attack Schab witnessed the moment the USS Arizona exploded into flames. Of the 2, 390 Americans killed in the attack, 1, 177 were members of the Arizona’s crew.

Schab, now 102 years old, joined fellow survivors and members of the community Wednesday at Pearl Harbor National Memorial for the commemoration of the 81st anniversary of the attack hosted by the National Park Service and the Navy. Schab flew to Oahu from his home in Portland, Ore., and said he has begun in his later years to return to Pearl Harbor for the annual anniversary of the attack for the veterans who can’t be there, as well as the fallen whose remains still rest at the bottom of the harbor.

“Although we continue to have fewer veterans join us, our resolve to ensure their stories are not forgotten will only get stronger, ” Pearl Harbor National Memorial Superintendent Thomas Leatherman told the crowd. “Together, we can continue to honor those who served and sacrificed by sharing the diverse stories and history related to the events from before, during and after Dec. 7, and the U.S. involvement in World War II.”

About 30 survivors attended last year’s 80th anniversary commemoration. There were only six survivors present Wednesday, although loosened COVID-19 restrictions allowed for more participation from members of the public. For aging Pearl Harbor survivors in their late 90s or into their 100s who don’t live in Hawaii, travel has become difficult.

Lou Conter, 101, is one of the two remaining survivors of the USS Arizona and watched the ceremony remotely on a live feed from his home in California, but organizers played prerecorded remarks from Conter over the speaker system for attendees to hear.

“Anytime I’m out there, I take a moment to review the names of my shipmates, and thank God for their ultimate sacrifice, ” Conter said. “We need to make future generations understand what Pearl Harbor really was about and what was at stake.”

But many of the survivors for much of their lives found it difficult to talk about the attack. After the war Schab went into aerospace engineering and worked for NASA on the Apollo program. His son, Karl Schab, followed in his footsteps and joined the Navy. Karl Schab found himself stationed at Pearl Harbor in the 1970s and lived for a time on Ford Island.

“When I was here, I asked him several times if he’d come and visit me, because I’d love to talk to him about what happened, ” Karl Schab recalled, explaining that he would sometimes stand by the point on Ford Island where the Dobbin had been moored and try to imagine what it would be like. But Ike Schab refused, insisting he would never return.

“It wasn’t until the 75th anniversary that he had this kind of mind and said, ‘I need to be there for the people that didn’t get to leave, ‘” Karl Schab explained.

The surprise attack wasn’t confined to Pearl Harbor itself. Japanese forces attacked military installations across Oahu. Herbert Elfring, 100, was a California National Guardsman stationed at Camp Malakole in the Barber’s Point area when the attack began. His unit had been activated and sent to Oahu amid rising tensions in the Pacific.

He was a junior soldier and had the day off the morning of the attack. He heard booming sounds down in Pearl Harbor, but thought maybe it was an exercise until a Japanese Zero fighter flew overhead and strafed him and his comrades with bullets. He survived and went on to fight in Fiji, Bougainville and the Philippines, ending his military career as an Army captain.

“It’s a treat to be able to come back year after year, ” Elfring said. “Just to be able to be here, physically, you know, because at this age, everything seems to deteriorate pretty fast.”

Elfring’s granddaughter, Leigh Anne Eaton, 35, joined him at the ceremony. She lives on Oahu and works on Ford Island at the National Weather Service.

“There really aren’t any words, ” she said. “It’s just remarkable that he can come out here and that he’s been making the trips for the past 10 years or so. I’m just lucky that I live out here and get to accompany him each time.”

National Park Service Director Charles Sams, who gave the keynote address during the ceremony, said that it is “a crucial part of the National Park Service to share our collective history, including the difficult and sometimes untold stories. That’s how we keep the legacy alive and continue to honor those whose lives were lost many years ago.”

Service members weren’t the only ones who lost their lives on Dec. 7, 1941. According to the park service, 49 civilians on Oahu died and 35 were wounded in the crossfire. Several civilian homes and properties also were damaged by stray munitions fired by both the Japanese and American forces.

After the attack the U.S. government put Hawaii under martial law.

Throughout the war Hawaii residents lived under strict curfews and rationing. Some were forced out of their homes so the military could use land as training grounds and live-fire ranges. Many young men from the islands also fought in the war, both as volunteers and draftees. According to the U.S. Army Center for Military History, an estimated 12 % of men drafted in Hawaii during World War II were Native Hawaiian or part Hawaiian.


(c) 2022 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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