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Pearl Harbor veteran recalls infamous day

  • The Miami Herald
  • Published Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, at 6:11 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, at 6:31 a.m.

— On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Abe Stein, a 21-year-old soldier from Wilkes Barre, Penn., was asleep in the U.S. Army’s Schofield Barracks on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

The post was established in 1908 as home to the 25th Infantry Division, assigned to protect the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.

But that day, no one could protect the ships docked there or personnel at surrounding installations from the Japanese sneak attack that took at least 2,400 American lives.

Sgt. Stein found himself running toward a base hospital, unsure what had made his bunk shake so hard that it woke him up.

“I was helping a colonel who was cursing: ‘The Japanese just bombed the hell out of us!’’ he recall today, more than seven decades later.

Stein, 92, an Aventura widower and retired hotel manager who dabbles in the travel business, says that the sights and sounds of that horrible day still haunt his memory.

“It’s like yesterday,’’ he says. “It’s not going away for me.’’

That’s both a blessing and curse for Stein: a blessing because he can speak about it as an eyewitness to history, a curse because whenever he hears “Taps,” he thinks about the dead and cries.

It’s thought that about 1,000 World War II veterans die every day, that by next year, only 1.25 million will remain, and that by 2036, all will be gone.

Pearl Harbor survivors like Stein are so rare that he believes himself one of only two left in South Florida. He belongs to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which used to meet every five years in Hawaii, but hasn’t since 2006.

“We’re getting about as extinct as the dodo bird,’’ the group’s president told a New York Times reporter at the time. “The way it’s going, our next national convention here we could hold in a phone booth.’’

Stein, who attended a 50th anniversary ceremony at Pearl Harbor, also participated in the Normandy invasion, for which he’ll receive the French Legion of Honor award on Dec. 19 at The Shul of Bal Harbour, where he prays.

Abe Stein had been a high school wrestler before he enlisted in the Army on Nov. 2, 1940, 13 months before the “date which shall live in infamy,’’ as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into the world war.

The seventh of 10 children, Stein followed a sister to Florida and signed up at a Miami recruiting office. He had his pick of posts and told the recruiter: “Hawaii looks good.’’

Had his family been able to afford it, he’d have become a doctor, Stein said. Instead, he trained in medical supply with the army, arriving at Schofield Barracks in January 1941.

He remembers sunny afternoons playing army/navy baseball during “11 months of peace.’’

The night of Dec. 6, 1941, Stein worked late.

“I was fast asleep when my bed started to shake,’’ he recalls. “Without opening my eyes I said, ‘Don’t bother me; I am off today.’ Then it shook again and I was ready to bop someone when I saw all of the soldiers running to the balcony. The clocked showed 7:55 a.m.’’

He saw fighter planes, which later strafed the barracks, but he didn’t realize they were Japanese.

“I said, ‘Why are they doing maneuvers on Sunday? Why are they using live bullets?’ Our guys are falling left and right.’’

Stein responded to a loud-speaker announcement calling all off-duty soldiers to the hospital.

“We were kept busy with doctors as the wounded kept coming in,’’ Stein remembers.

As night fell, he and five others were told to wait in a blacked-out office for orders to remove the dead, feeling their way in stairwells in the dark.

“We’d get a call from a nurse: ‘Fourth Floor,’ and we’d crawl up four flights of stairs. We’d get there and she’d say: ‘Fourth bed on the right.’ It was very hard to take. There was two of us to a body. One would take the head portion, and I would take the legs. One body, there were no legs. I broke down and cried...Losing all those people was very heartbreaking.’’

They took the bodies to a makeshift morgue.

A week later, he was sent to the island of Kaua’i to help set up a hospital and medical supply depot.

“A lot of troops were coming in and getting sick,’’ Stein remembered.

After a stint back in the States, Stein was sent to the English port city of Southampton, to prepare for D-Day: June 6, 1944. The war ended in Europe the following May.

After his army discharge in August 1945 as a staff sergeant, Stein worked in the Catskills then settled in Miami Beach. He married, had two children, and spent decades working at well-known hotels, including the Promenade, the Shore Club, the Raleigh, the Fairfax and the Beau Rivage in Bal Harbour, which he managed.

“For 37 years, I never looked for a job,’’ he says.

There’s something else that Stein, who still drives — a Pontiac — has never done.

“I still will not buy a Japanese or a German car.’’

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