Their hair has now turned white. Their gait is unsteady. One uses a cane.
But 70 years ago, Kansans Arthur Dunn, Paul Aschbrenner and Earl Schaeffer Jr. defended the United States as it was attacked by Japanese naval and air forces.
They are among the last survivors of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Less than a dozen are estimated to be living in Kansas, fewer than 3,000 nationally.
Wednesday marked one of the final moments of the local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which for decades has sponsored an annual tribute each Dec. 7 at 10:55 a.m. Central Standard Time, the exact moment Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Due to declining membership, the chapter is expected to dissolve – as will the national chapter – at the end of this year.
More than 200 people attended the Pearl Harbor observance Wednesday and filled the auditorium at the Robert J. Dole Medical Center and Regional Office’s auditorium to standing room only.
As the crowd and the survivors stood in prayer, the Veterans Administration chaplain, Maynard Peterson, said: “We come together so we may hear their stories again. So we may not forget. And so that we remember Pearl Harbor and keep America alert.”
Leading up to Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese assets in the United States became frozen in retaliation for the Japanese occupation of French Indochina; and President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued shoot-on-sight orders to naval commanders patrolling U.S. continental waters, warning German and Italian ships that they entered those waters at their own risk.
Roosevelt also called on Congress to create a multimillion-dollar program to aid nations fighting the war against Nazi Germany in what he called the “Four Freedoms.”
“In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded on four essential human freedoms,” Roosevelt said, citing Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.
And, as Jim Denison, the organizer of Wednesday’s event, pointed out as the observance began:
“The average income for a person in 1941 was $1,777 per person, a new car was $850, tuition at Harvard was only $420 a year, gasoline was 12 cents and a postage stamp could be purchased for 3 cents.”
An air siren sounded in the auditorium.
“Thousands of miles away, this is what our comrades were hearing,” Denison said.
As the siren continued for nearly a minute to crescendo and grow soft, it wasn’t hard to imagine the men now nearing 90 years old as they once gave service to their country.
Dunn and Aschbrenner were serving on the USS Oklahoma.
Dunn was a turret gunner who scrambled to his post when the first torpedo hit the ship.
“Sometimes I think the lucky ones were the ones who died off instantly rather than those that later went through the war,” Dunn told The Eagle in 2005.
For 45 years after the attack, he couldn’t talk – wouldn’t talk – about that day.
Then, when he could talk about it, his wife, Marlene, helped him present programs to local groups. But since she’s died, he told The Eagle two years ago, it’s been hard again.
Aschbrenner was a seaman 1st class.
The torpedo’s blast lifted the Oklahoma out of the water. The ship went black and began to roll over, sinking eight minutes later. All told, nine torpedoes hit the ship.
He climbed down one of the ship’s gun turrets and slipped into the oily waters of the harbor to swim to safety.
“The oil was on top of the water and I was getting it into my eyes and my mouth and I thought I was a goner,” Aschbrenner told The Eagle. “I remember thinking, ‘What did we do to those people for them to do such terrible things to us?’ ”
He prayed to God. He considers it a miracle he survived.
Schaeffer, a turret gunner on a B-17, was working on that fateful Sunday morning on the switchboard in the communications shack on the hangar line of Hickam Field. When the planes flew over Hickman, he recognized them as Japanese Zero fighters. Pieces of the shack’s ceiling tumbled down around him and things started flying off the walls. He was given a gun and told to go out and help arm the U.S. aircraft that hadn’t been destroyed yet.
“While we were doing that, those Japanese planes just kept strafing us,” Schaeffer said. In less than two hours, it was over. He had been subbing for a buddy who had a date in Honolulu. Schaeffer never saw his friend again.
In less than two hours, 2,504 Americans had been killed and 1,174 were wounded or dying.
“The attack on Pearl Harbor and the years that followed remind us of a chapter in American history filled with sorrow along with great courage,” said Toni Porter, director of constituent services, as she read a letter on behalf of Congressman Mike Pompeo, who was unable to attend the event. “We also gather here today to honor the greatest generation and veterans who served proudly during World War II. America emerged from the sorrows of Pearl Harbor and the trials of war, thanks to the unwavering service and dedicated love of country.”
Col. Ricky Rupp, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Commander at McConnell Air Force Base, said the Air Force was one of the many gifts given to the nation from World War II.
“The majority of people in this room, and all Americans, remember where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, but very few of us can say where they were on the day Pearl Harbor and our nation was attacked,” Rupp said. “The Japanese violent and ruthless actions thrust the United States into a second world war, but it also galvanized the American spirit, strengthened our resolve and it ensured that we would accept nothing less than victory. There are two common themes to each of these men’s stories: courage and commitment. Those two simple but complex words are what our military has embraced to make us the most powerful fighting force in the world today.”