Aging Pearl Harbor attack survivors passing on the baton

About 120 Pearl Harbor survivors are expected to attend Wednesday's 70th anniversary of the attack.

Story highlights

  • Pearl Harbors Survivors Association formally disbands at end of month
  • Another group, individuals are taking up the baton
  • This year's commemoration marks 70 years since Dec. 7 attacks on Oahu
  • Cremated remains of two service members will be placed in ships at Pearl Harbor
For 70 years, survivors of the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor have captivated listeners with their firsthand accounts, recalling buddies who died in their arms or the glasses worn by a low-flying Japanese pilot.
They have participated in solemn wreath-laying ceremonies and spoken to civic groups and school children about the infamous day and the need for the United States to remain vigilant.
But the gradual loss of the World War II generation has accelerated, and this year, perhaps more than any before it, evidence of a tide change is inescapable.
The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, founded in 1958, is dissolving December 31. The passing of time, the difficulty in finding chapter officers and the health of its 2,700 members have taken their toll.
"We don't like to see it happen," said George Bennett, 87, the organization's national secretary and a Pearl Harbor survivor. "But we don't have young members coming in like other organizations." Informal social and local activities will continue, he said.
George Bennett was a radio-trained 17-year-old seaman first class on December 7, 1941.
About 84,000 uniformed Americans were on Oahu that fateful day. Only an estimated 8,000 are alive today -- and they are in their late 80s and older. Children and grandchildren have stepped up to carry the flag of their forefathers.
The Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors, with about 20 chapters, is helping to "carry on the legacy left to us," said national president Louella Large, whose father served at the U.S. Army's Schofield Barracks during the attack.
Large, like others, is concerned that most U.S. schoolchildren today know almost nothing about the surprise attack that pulverized battleships and aircraft stationed at Hawaii.
Flying from aircraft carriers, Japanese pilots attacked eight battleships, destroying two, and left a trail of death and destruction across the verdant landscape. About 2,400 people, most of them in the military, were killed. The attack shook America's confidence and ushered the country into World War II.
About 120 Pearl Harbor survivors are registered to attend Wednesday morning's annual memorial ceremony.
Four military and four civilian survivors will be on panels at a symposium that concludes Monday. No Japanese military veterans of the attack are able to be on hand for ceremonies honoring U.S. dead at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
Perspectives at the symposiums, held every five years, are shifting.
Remains of Vernon Olsen will be interred Wednesday in the battleship USS Arizona, on which he served and where 1,117 sailors and Marines died December 7, 1941.
"We were able in the past to (tell the story) through the mouths of those who saw it," said Lisa Ontai, spokeswoman for Pacific Historic Parks, an organization that assists the National Park Service. "Now, we are showing it through experts who studied it over the years."
Among others traveling to Hawaii are families of two servicemen who died in the past two years.
Remains of Vernon Olsen, 91, of Port Charlotte, Florida, will be interred Wednesday in the battleship USS Arizona, on which he served and where 1,117 sailors and Marines died in the attack.
Those of Lee Soucy, 90, of Plainview, Texas, will be carried Tuesday by a diver to the USS Utah, which also is entombed off Ford Island.
"I think it's pretty awesome that we are getting to do this," said daughter Mary McCormick.
Soucy's children also will spread ashes belonging to their father and mother, Peggy, at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Honolulu, where the pair were married in January 1945. Peggy Soucy was a Navy nurse who met her future husband at Pearl Harbor.
Memorial ceremonies, boat and bus tours are taking place this week on Oahu. Veterans and others will converge on current and former military installations, including Hickam Field, Pearl Harbor, Wheeler Army Airfield and the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay.
A Blu-ray version of the the 1970 film "Tora! Tora! Tora!" with extended footage, was to be shown Sunday evening at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, near the USS Arizona.
Historians say the passage of time is allowing for a broader, more objective look at the attack.
Research has provided new insights, particularly about the Japanese perspectives and source material on the attack. In recent years, interpretation also has shifted its focus "from engagement to peace," with recognition that both sides fought a "savage war," said Daniel A. Martinez, chief historian at the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
'I harbor no ill will'
McCormick, 65, of Amarillo, Texas, told CNN her father's enlistment was due to expire December 7, 1941. Soucy, a pharmacist's mate on the USS Utah, would vividly recall a peaceful Sunday morning that quickly turned to terror, she said.
"He was looking out the port window and saw what he thought would be his last day there. He s