This is one of the most important columns I will write as publisher of this newspaper. It deals with history, one of the true turning points in American history and I hope everyone will take the lessons of this column and never forget.
Tomorrow is Pearl Harbor Day. Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy.
I will always remember Pearl Harbor Day and the brave men who served and died there. In my lifetime I have met a number of these hero warriors who served on the fateful day. Please indulge me — I want to tell you a story about seven incredible men who were there on Dec. 7, 1941. They changed my life by their honor.
It was late November of 2007, and I was running a newspaper operation and printing plant in mid-Michigan. I knew Pearl Harbor was coming up in a few weeks, so I contacted the local Veterans Affair Officer and asked if he knew of any Pearl Harbor survivors living in the area.
“You’re in luck Terry,” he said. “His name is John Wilberding, and he is head of the Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Association for the state of Michigan. I will set up a meeting for you two to meet in a couple of days.”
A day later the VA officer called, told me the meeting was set for the following Monday, and John Wilberding was looking forward to telling his story of Pearl Harbor. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
It was one of the most seminal moments of my life.
John and I met at the Alma Community Hospital while his wife was undergoing kidney dialysis. We met in the hospital cafeteria, where we were the only two people present at the time, and John proceeded to tell his story.
On Dec. 6, 1941 he was stationed at Wheeler Army Air Corps base on Oahu. During the evening of that Saturday night in Honolulu, young Wilberding caroused the bars of Waikiki before returning to his barracks to sleep off his night of revelry.
On the morning of Dec. 7, Wilberding woke up with a rousing hangover. It was 0600, and he had to decide if he was going to mass at 7 a.m. or not. He opted to go. It saved his life.
He went to mass, but at 7:55 a.m. the Japanese swooped down on the air field and began bombing and strafing the barracks and facilities. The air raid siren went off, and he ran out of the church only to see the spot he would have been sleeping blown to smithereens by a Japanese bomb. His bunk mates were all killed. Going to church saved his life.
A few months later, John decided he didn’t want to load machine gun belts for the Army Air Corps. He put in for a transfer and wound up training as a tank commander. A couple of years later he was in the 4th Armored Division with George Patton’s Third Army. It was his outfit that led to the relief of Bastogne at the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, my friend John Wilberding became a preacher.
As he finished his story, I had tears in my eyes. While we were talking, a host of nurses, doctors and other medical staff had found their way to the cafeteria and were eavesdropping on John’s conversation with me. Everyone applauded when he was finished.
Over time, I met six other men. One served on the USS Maryland. At Pearl Harbor, he spent a week on the hull of the capsized USS Oklahoma trying to rescue the sailors who were trapped below decks. Sixty years later, he could still hear the clanking on the pipes of the men who were signaling that they were alive below. Most of them never made it.
Six months after meeting John and writing his story for the local paper, John asked me to join his association for their annual meeting. I brought along a print of the USS Arizona I had purchased at Pearl Harbor in 1993 and was hoping to get some autographs from these heroes.
The last seven survivors were there, as were many of the widows of men who had served there but had already passed away. The featured speaker was supposed to be an expert on graves registration, but she did not show up. As I was eating my dessert, John announced the featured speaker was not going to be there, then said: “I’ve heard Terry talk before, and he has some good speeches, so let’s get him up here and give us a speech!”
I spit out my brownie at this announcement and tried to compose myself at this sudden revelation and honor. I walked up to the dais, cleared my throat, and looked around the room filled with these incredible heroes. My speech went something like this:
“It is an honor to be here tonight, in a room filled with true American heroes,” I began. As I started speaking, I noticed most of the men were shaking their heads in disbelief at the words I was saying to them. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
“I notice you men are shaking your heads in disbelief — that you don’t think you really are heroes,” I said. “You think that because you came home while many of your buddies are buried overseas makes you less of a hero.
“Well, you are wrong men! You saw men die, and you saw men get wounded. Their screams still haunt your memories at night.
“But you are heroes! You men did your duty, you stood your post, and you came home to lead good lives! I don’t know about you, but that is a definition of a hero in my book any day.
“And talk about Pearl Harbor! Remember Pearl Harbor? I will teach my children and my grandchildren about you men and they will know who you were and what you did. My family will always honor your memory and Remember Pearl Harbor!”
Well, those men jumped to their feet and started applauding while tears ran down their faces. The widows cried, and so did I. “It’s about time someone honored these men!” one woman intoned. “They have been waiting for this for over 50 years.”
It was a proud moment for these men and their families and I was honored that I got to tell them what the whole world thought of them.
We all hugged and shook hands, and every one of those men asked me if they could sign my USS Arizona print! They all signed it, and it now hangs proudly on the wall behind my desk in the publisher’s office at the Gonzales Inquirer. It is one of proudest possessions.
Remember Pearl Harbor? How can we afford to forget?