Memories of “a date that will live in infamy,” unblemished and unforgettable, filled a Navy auditorium Saturday, when 342 old soldiers, Marines and sailors were honored with a medal commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
The simple ceremony at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado was emotional and marked with healthy doses of pride and patriotism as dozens of old warriors--some feeble and others still showing signs of the wounds they suffered that day--walked to the front of the hall to receive their bronze medals.
Navy chaplain Lt. Don Troast said the cavernous theatre was filled with “memories of uncommon valor.”
“I am honored to be standing here today, invoking the presence of God in this room full of living history,” said Troast to the overflow crowd, which numbered more than 1,000.
Congress authorized the special medal for the military men and women who were at Pearl Harbor on that Sunday morning, when Japanese planes attacked Army, Marine and Navy installations, plunging the United States into World War II.
One side of the medal, which is about the size of a half-dollar coin, reads, “For those who served. A date that will live in infamy.” The opposite side is stamped with a likeness of a U.S. battleship from WWII, ringed by the words, “Remember Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.”
Several survivors of men who qualified for the medal received the award on their behalf. The ceremony will be repeated at other chapters throughout the United States until Dec. 7.
The San Diego County chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn. is the largest in the country. Another ceremony is scheduled today at the naval base, when another 374 medals will be awarded.
For some recipients, the medal generated a torrent of emotions. Jim Kinsella could not hold back the tears after receiving the award. He sank in his seat, dabbing at his eyes, which were brimming with tears.
Fifty years after the surprise attack, some veterans still find it hard to forgive the Japanese. Many said they still hold resentment and animosity against their old enemy.
“I’m sorry to have to say I can never fully forgive them,” said Don Christensen of Coronado. “The Japanese government is still not telling their people the truth about how the attack led to the war.”
Christensen was an ensign on the supply ship Antares. On the morning of the attack, his ship was entering the harbor about one hour before the first Japanese planes roared down from the sky. Crewmen aboard the Antares saw a periscope from a Japanese mini-submarine and alerted the destroyer Ward, which was nearby.
“The Ward came in and dropped depth charges and sank the sub. This happened about one hour before the attack,” said Christensen, who retired as a captain after 28 years in the Navy.
The confrontation with the Japanese submarine was not enough to alert military officials that something unusual was under way. The incident generated one of several controversial debates about whether U.S. officials knew of the impending attack.
Burton T. Yount, 68, was a young Army corporal on that fateful Sunday morning, assigned to the 9th Signal Service Co. at Ft. Shafter. Yount’s unit handled communications with Washington and the Philippines and eavesdropped on Japanese radio messages.
Yount, a San Diego resident who retired as a captain after 20 years in the Army, is convinced that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall knew that an attack by Japanese naval forces was imminent.
“My unit also used to secretly tape Japanese coded messages. The code had already been broken and we used to send the tapes back to Washington by Clipper (seaplane),” said Yount. “We didn’t have the machine needed to break down the code, but Washington had the information (about the attack) well in advance. There was no way they could’ve not known.”
Yount, a former accounting instructor at San Diego City College, said that he does not hold any animosity against the Japanese.
“It was a dastardly thing to do. We weren’t at war with them. But there comes a time when you have to forgive. We forgave the Germans, and they weren’t exactly peace lovers,” Yount said.
Several veterans echoed often-stated criticism of the present Japanese government’s trade policy and Japanese companies that are allowed to sell their products in the United States, while barring American goods.
“It happened because our government let them do it,” said Yount. “They never give anything in trade talks. They always talk like they do, but if they give anything, they do it grudgingly. But we’re at fault for allowing it.”
One of the biggest cheers of the day went up when Henry Cruz, one of about 198 survivors from the battleship Arizona, was announced. The ship was blown apart by Japanese bombs and sits at the bottom of the harbor with the remains of about 1,177 crew members.
Cruz, who is 71, and a Chula Vista resident, was a 21-year-old cook at the time of the attack. He was the last crew member rescued from the Arizona.
“It wasn’t because I was a hero. I was the last guy off the ship because I didn’t know how to swim,” said the native of Guam. “The burning oil in the water also made me afraid to jump. But I eventually jumped into a rescue boat.”
For many veterans, Saturday’s ceremony brought back painful memories of dead and wounded servicemen, some who were horribly burned and mangled in the attack.
“I can still see the images of the burned and dismembered bodies. We were pulling dead and wounded guys out of ships and the water for awhile,” said Cruz.
Theda Dennett was one of the widows receiving a medal on behalf of their husbands. John S. Dennett was a boiler man on the Shaw, which was in dry dock when Japanese planes attacked it. The couple were married for 51 years.
John Dennett was burned in the torso and face and hit by several pieces of shrapnel. Despite the wounds, he went on to serve 22 years in the Navy. Dennett died on Nov. 25, 1990, a year and two days before he and his fellow veterans were scheduled to receive the congressional medal.
“I wish he could be here to receive this,” said Theda Dennett, 70. “Monday will be the first anniversary of his death. I wish that they could’ve mailed this to me. I’ve been thinking about this and his death all week. I should be happy about this, but both things have upset me all week. I wish he could be here.”