Down to six veterans, survivors of the surprise Japanese attack will still socialize and appear in parades.
The San Diego chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn., maybe the last one still operating in the United States, held its final meeting Saturday, a bow to the relentless march of time. What had once been a group with 586 men now has seven.
They will socialize when they can, and chapter President Stuart Hedley, a fixture at veterans events for decades, plans to continue speaking at schools and appearing at parades and memorial gatherings. But their official business — monthly meetings, financial reports, officer elections — is finished.
“It’s certainly the end of an era,” said Hedley, who turns 98 next month, “and it leaves me a little heartbroken.”
Hedley said the group, which at its peak was believed to be the largest chapter in the nation, can’t continue because it needs at least two survivors to serve on the board. After Jack Evans, the vice president, died in February at age 95, no one else was ambulatory enough to take his place.
“There’s no way around it,” Hedley said. “We are a dying organization.”
About 50,000 American service members were on Oahu on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when waves of Japanese airplanes arrived from aircraft carriers offshore and decimated the Pacific Fleet in a surprise attack that shoved the United States into World War II.
About 2,400 Americans were killed and another 1,200 injured. More than 30 ships and hundreds of airplanes were destroyed or damaged.
Those who survived — no one knows how many there are — picked themselves up, helped win the war and got on with their lives in a way that led them to be called the Greatest Generation. They are all pushing the century mark now. The only other San Diego survivor able to attend Saturday’s meeting, Clayton Schenkelberg, will be 102 next month.
He and Hedley were among about 100 people who gathered in an auditorium at a Mormon church in La Mesa Saturday for the final meeting, which was scheduled to coincide with the chapter’s founding 56 Septembers ago.
“You taught us the definition of bravery by your actions that day long ago, and by the way you have lived your lives since,” said Scott Herrod, a church official. “You demonstrated courage, and what it means to fulfill your commitments.”
The meeting drew relatives, friends and admirers of the survivors, many of them dressed in Hawaiian shirts or dresses and donning leis. Lunch was Hawaiian, too, and singers entertained with songs from the South Pacific, as well as patriotic numbers and a medley of 1940s hits.
When lunch was over, the chapter board held what Hedley called “its shortest meeting ever.” He said prayer, called roll and expressed regret that it had come to this.
Then he tapped a gavel on the table and said, “We are done.”
How it started
Like many World War II veterans, the Pearl Harbor survivors didn’t talk much about their experiences, at least not at first.
In 1954, 11 men who had been on one of damaged battleships gathered on Dec. 7 for a reunion at a restaurant in Gardena. A reporter for the local newspaper covered the event, and as he talked to the attendees he told them he, too, had been there during the attack, attached to a bomb squadron at Hickam Field.
They shared memories and paid tributes to the fallen, and when they were done vowed to meet again a year later and invite others. From that came the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn., and soon chapters opened all across the country. At its height, the association had close to 30,000 members in dozens of chapters.
The one in San Diego drew from a large pool of veterans because of the county’s longstanding ties to the Navy. “I think we like to get together because Pearl Harbor was a one-of-a-kind experience,” the late Bob Ruffato once told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Unless you were there, it’s hard to understand what it was like.”
The members here, as elsewhere, wore Hawaiian shirts and white slacks to official functions. The shirts were a nod to their location when the Japanese planes attacked. The white pants spoke to the innocence of those killed in a war they didn’t even know had started.
The survivors put into practice a key part of the association’s motto: “Remember Pearl Harbor.” They gave talks to schoolchildren and on military bases. They rode in Veterans Day parades and spoke at Memorial Day commemorations. They sent letters to congressional leaders, urging continued vigilance against foreign threats.
In his 2016 book, “Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness,” author Craig Nelson wrote, “It could easily be said that Pearl Harbor would not today hold the special place it does in American hearts if not for their efforts.”
San Diego’s chapter was uncommonly influential. Members led by the late Gordon Jones badgered the Navy for 15 years to name a ship after Pearl Harbor, well aware that the military service preferred that honor to go to someone or something identified with triumph, not defeat.
The survivors got their wish in 1998 when the Pearl Harbor, a dock landing ship, was put into service and home-ported in San Diego. Its crew members forged a bond with the survivors, sometimes attending the monthly meetings and helping to swear in new officers.
Baseball hats worn by the ship’s crew members speak to the way the survivors came to see themselves, and their nation, in the aftermath of the attack. The hats have on them a phoenix, rising.
During the production of “Pearl Harbor,” the 2001 movie starring Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale and Josh Hartnett, filmmakers consulted with local survivors. Even though the movie was panned by critics, who noted numerous historical inaccuracies, the vets here were proud of one thing: They’d convinced the scriptwriters to tone down the profanities.
“It’s just not how we talked,” the late Ralph Lindenmeyer told the Union-Tribune at the time. “Sure, there were four-letter words, but not that many.”
Unmistakable trend line
In 2011, 70 years after the attack, the national survivors association called it quits because so many of its members had passed away. Fewer than 3,000 were left.
Many of the individual chapters shut down, too, and shifted into being social clubs. Most of those have ceased as well.
San Diego kept its chapter going by moving under the umbrella of the nonprofit Veterans Museum at Balboa Park. That enabled members to continue having monthly meetings and collecting dues. Membership was expanded to include the wives and children of survivors, as well as honorary members, and that kept the total at about 100 for several years.
But the trend line was unmistakable. At Saturday’s final meeting, a table in the back was crowded with memorabilia from the chapter, including two dozen framed photos of survivors at various events over the years. Almost everyone in the photos has died. Several scrapbooks were filled with newspaper clippings of their obituaries.
In the past year, in addition to Evans, several more have died. Ray Chavez passed away in November at age 106. He had been the oldest survivor in the U.S. Gordon Jones, 96, died in August 2018; Adam Romero, 98, in April; Ray Richmond, 100, just a month ago.
It used to be when one of them died, the chapter’s funeral detail swung into action. At the memorial service, three survivors would perform a traditional Navy farewell known as the two-bell ceremony. One would give a eulogy, one would read from a script, and one would ring the bell.
Now it will be Hedley and whatever volunteers he can find.
“Being a Christian, I recognize the fact there is going to come a day for all of us,” Hedley said. “The way I’ve overcome all this loss is when I lose one, I pour my life into the others.”
On Tuesday, he’s heading to the World War II Museum in New Orleans. He has a couple of middle-school speaking appearances scheduled for November, as well as a Veterans Day parade in National City, where he will be the grand marshal.
He’s also been asked to attend the annual Dec. 7 memorial in Hawaii, but there’s a yearly event on the USS Midway Museum, too, and Hedley has already agreed to be there.
“Lord willing,” he said.
Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.