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Veterans work to keep Pearl Harbor remembrances active

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, at 6:36 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, at 7:49 a.m.

Arthur Dunn eased himself from his wheelchair as color guards presented the American flag Saturday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Haysville. His fellow Pearl Harbor survivor, Earl Schaeffer Jr., leaned slightly on his walker.

Their backs, curved with age, straightened to those of soldiers decades younger. Each saluted, unwavering, as the crowd honored the flag.

“This is their day,” Jim Denison said, voice shaking with suppressed tears. “They have both told me in the years past that it is pretty hard to remember yesterday or last week.

“But they certainly remember what happened 72 years today” – a date, he reminded the crowd, that will live in infamy.

Dozens gathered at the local VFW Post 6957 on Saturday to observe the 72nd anniversary of the attacks on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, which killed 2,402 Americans and wounded more than 1,000 others on Dec. 7, 1941.

Dunn, of Belle Plaine, was just 18 and a turret gunner serving on the USS Oklahoma when he swam to safety after the first torpedo struck and his battleship rolled.

Schaeffer, of Hays, was 19 and working the switchboard in the communications shack on the hangar line of nearby Hickam Field at the time.

The men are part of a rapidly dwindling group of people who survived the bombing.

“We’re going to put out a heavy carpet today, comrades,” said Denison, a Vietnam War veteran who led the afternoon remembrance ceremony at the post, 7504 S. Broadway.

“Seventy-two (years). That’s a long time.”

Saturday’s event – an hourlong service featuring brief war tales, recognition of deceased Kansas veterans and a keynote address by former VFW state commander Lewie Cooper – marked the return of a Pearl Harbor observance locally.

Last year, prompted by decreasing membership, the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association let local chapters decide whether to carry on with remembrance ceremonies. It was the first time there was little wide-scale recognition of the bombing’s anniversary and the first time there was no ceremony of note held in Wichita.

Displeased, Dunn asked Denison, an organizer of past observances, to help the memory live on by staging this year’s event.

“Arthur wants to perpetuate it,” Denison told The Eagle last week. “He says it has to be remembered for the next generation’s kids.”

When introduced to the crowd Saturday, the old veterans rose silently. Dunn waved. Schaeffer nodded. The crowd stood and applauded.

Many, including family members of now-dead Pearl Harbor veterans, swiped at tears.

Later, the pair of survivors bowed their heads as cadets from Wichita West High School Pioneer Battalion presented a wreath of flowers to honor the dead.

Asked to speak, Dunn thanked the VFW post for “taking me in.”

“This is a growing post,” he said, “and I’m proud to be a member.”

When it was his turn, Schaeffer simply said: “I’m very happy to be here, brought by the recognition we have.

“I don’t know how many more anniversaries there will be. But I’ll be here if there are.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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