WASHINGTON – Rockville resident Henry Rapalus, 78, will be in Hawaii on Friday, 60 years to the day after he was a young sailor handling ammunition on a naval destroyer when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
It is not the first time that members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association have gathered to commemorate that fateful attack. But Rapalus suspects that many of the 7,000 to 8,000 members of the association may not be around to attend the next reunion, five years from now.
“We have the feeling that this is going to be the last time,” said Rapalus, one of about 600 survivors and family members in Oahu on Friday.
Meetings of the association’s Maryland chapter are getting smaller, too, said Hugh Roper, 80. The Columbia resident said that, of the 150 Pearl Harbor survivors in the state, there are only about 20 who regularly attend meetings.
Roper and other local survivors will mark the anniversary Friday in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor at the Coast Guard cutter Taney, the last floating ship from Pearl Harbor. Those survivors will include Myrtle Miller Watson, who was an Army nurse at Pearl Harbor 60 years ago.
“I was in the unique position to see these young men so beat up and . . . damaged when they did not have a fighting chance, and they had such a great spirit,” said Watson, 87, of Parkville.
“I cannot find an adjective to describe the spirit and morale of those young men,” said Watson. “They were young in age, but not in spirit.”
Roper was an Army Air Corps cook who had been out late the night before and — like everyone else on the island — was astonished to wake up to an air attack on the morning of Dec. 7.
Roper said he was getting ready to go to church early that morning when he looked outside and already saw “five or six men standing on the lawn” watching as the Japanese started to bomb Pearl Harbor.
The attack came just a day after an alert of a Japanese ground attack had been lifted, and “everyone took off,” he said. While everyone slept with emergency packs during the alert, containing a rifle, helmet and gas mask, the packs were locked away once the alert was lifted.
There were about “10 enlisted men, barely privates” from his barrack on the island that morning, he said. They “found a pistol, blew the lock off the shack door, took the rifles out, and then ran back to the steps of the barracks that they were attacking.”
“They flew so low that literally, you could see their faces as they flew by,” Roper said of the Japanese.
For the rest of the day, he said, the soldiers “hid in a very narrow, compressed hallway.” The man next to him was killed when their barracks was hit.
After carrying the wounded to a hospital, Roper and the other soldiers spent the night in a house on the island, where Roper remembers sleeping under a grand piano.
Watson said she felt the same pride and sense of American “cohesiveness” when she heard of all the people helping after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It sent shivers down my spine,” said Watson.
But both she and Rapalus said that when they visit area schools today, they are alarmed that few young people know much about Dec. 7, 1941, despite the talk that Sept. 11 spurred.
“Surprisingly enough, because they don’t know much about Pearl Harbor, some ask about the Great Depression,” said Rapalus.
Watson noted that the Sept. 11 attacks have prompted educators to have an emphasis on teaching history.
“I think the schoolchildren are beginning to be made more aware of their past history,” she said.
Watson noted that many have drawn parallels between the attacks on Dec. 7 and Sept. 11 — “Both attacks promoted disbelief, shock and anger” — but she said Americans had started to forget the most important lessons from Pearl Harbor, which was not to be complacent. Sept. 11 was a wake-up call, she said.
“We were too trustworthy,” said Watson, of the recent attacks. She said that the motto of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association is to “remember Pearl Harbor and keep America alert.”
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