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A day they'll never forget

Few remain to mark 67th anniversary of attack on Pearl Harbor

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / December 7, 2008
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After a lifetime of war, work, child-rearing, and retirement, the ravages of age have largely accomplished what Japanese warplanes could not do 67 years ago today.

The survivors of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor have been decimated by death and disability. And today, when a memorial ceremony is held at the Charlestown Navy Yard, only one survivor is expected to make his way to the fantail of a World War II destroyer to toss a wreath into Boston Harbor.

"The ones who won't be there either can't make it or they're dead," said Don Tabbut, 85, a stooped Navy veteran who will step aboard the USS Cassin Young. "I'm still doing my best."

In Massachusetts and across the United States, organized groups of Pearl Harbor survivors are rapidly shrinking or withering through a lack of activity. With each Dec. 7, an increasing number of them have moved into nursing homes, lost contact with comrades, or cannot endure the painful ordeal that travel has become.

Only Tabbut is expected to attend today's Charlestown ceremony from Pearl Harbor Survivors and Friends, a Massachusetts group with 14 veterans of the attack.

Another group, the New England and New York district of the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, probably held its last annual dinner this year. Arthur Schreier, director of the district, said he is unable to continue in the office. And none of the estimated 400 survivors left in the region have volunteered to take over, he said.

"Like me, they're all getting old," said Schreier, 86, of Watertown, Conn.

Association officials, recognizing the inevitable, said other districts around the country appear headed toward the same fate.

"Unfortunately, given our age, it's become very, very difficult," said Jim Evans, 84, national secretary of the organization.

In the passing of survivors who remember the invasion that propelled the country into war is a larger passage, of a generation that lived through and, more than any generation since, fought together in a global conflict that defined the course of American destiny for more than half a century. With firsthand memories dying along with members of that generation, World War II inevitably is retreating to the pages of history.

Evans, who served as a Marine at Kaneohe Naval Air Station on the island of Oahu, expected fewer than 100 survivors to attend the national gathering this weekend in Fredericksburg, Texas. Evans, who saw ferocious combat after Pearl Harbor at Guadalcanal, Saipan, and Tarawa, estimated there are 5,800 survivors left nationwide.

"I'll tell you what we won't talk about," Evans said of this anniversary's events. "We won't talk about Pearl Harbor. We all know exactly what happened. We'll talk about the people we knew."

For veterans who witnessed the carnage at Pearl Harbor, where 2,338 service members and civilians were killed, their decades-long mantra has been a call for constant vigilance. But for a younger generation whose reference for national tragedy is Sept. 11, 2001, the mention of Pearl Harbor conjures only the kind of murky, faraway images that World War I did for their baby boomer parents.

To William Keith, a Navy veteran from Marshfield who narrowly escaped death on the USS West Virginia, the day holds a lesson that he readily shares with his large, extended family, schoolchildren, and even shoppers who approach him at the mall to thank him.

"My opinion is there is always going to be war," said Keith, 86, who served as a hospital corpsman. "Someday, I believe, we're going to be attacked again, and I don't think a lot of people realize that. Every day we're here, we're lucky."

Keith knows that better than almost anyone. On the morning of the attack, Keith was dispatched to his battle station three levels below the main deck. When water began to flood the space, rushing through a hole ripped open by a Japanese torpedo, Keith saw no escape.

But then a sailor opened the hatch from above, and Keith and others scrambled for a single ladder that led to safety, at least temporarily. Some sailors climbed to freedom; others fell back and did not. Keith dived from the stricken battleship and swam to safety, pushing a sheet of oil before him as he struggled to land.

Today, Keith does not recall many of the details of his ordeal. And he does not try to remember.

"Why not? Maybe I don't want to," Keith said. "I try to forget some things."

Nearly seven decades later, Keith still is plagued by anxiety when he is confined in small places like elevators.

"If I go to the movies," Keith said, "I have to sit in the back row."

Today, Keith will appear at a short ceremony in Marshfield. He might even make an impromptu decision to lower the flag at the housing complex where he lives.

"I was thinking of it," Keith said, a USS West Virginia cap on his head and dozens of Pearl Harbor photos beside him. "To me, it's important."

Tabbut, who served as a Navy radioman on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, has been busily preparing for today's ceremony at the Charlestown Navy Yard. He is determined to make the pilgrimage for as long as his health and unsteady legs will permit.

During the ceremony, Tabbut said, he fully expects to see no one else with the same vivid memories he shares of that infamous morning.

"I should feel real bad, but I don't think I will," Tabbut said. "For me to be putting on this show again, it makes me feel awful nice."

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