BIG RUN — VFW Post 9044 of Big Run and the Ladies’ Auxiliary held a ceremony commemorating Pearl Harbor Day — an annual recognition of the Dec. 7 attack by the Japanese that led to American involvement in World War II — on Friday, the 71st anniversary of the event, at the Big Run War Memorial.
The main speaker for the evening was VFW Post Chaplain Gene McKee, who is a veteran of World War II and also delivered the invocation and benediction for the event.
After a series of speeches by Post 9044 Commander Jim Pallone and Post 9044 Adjutant Bob Lott, as well as musical performances and a patriotic reading by Merica Pallone, McKee took to the podium to tell his story.
He enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 years old, midway through his senior year. He attended boot camp in Sampson, New York, by the Finger Lakes, after which he joined up with the outgoing unit at Newport, Rhode Island.
McKee's group was intended to replace those who were killed in action or to crew new ship.
He eventually found himself aboard the U.S.S. Portsmouth CL-102, aboard which he served in the Atlantic until the war was over with Germany.
The ship then made way to the Pacific for the continuing war against Japan with an invasion planned for November 1945 and another to follow in March 1946.
McKee said dropping the atomic bomb ended the war and halted any plans for the invasion of Japan.
"We estimated only 50 percent of us would have come home alive from the invasion," McKee said, "and I would have been in the first invasion."
The Japanese also had an atomic bomb close to completion, with only an estimated six months left to completion at the time. This bomb was found following the war.
Afterwards McKee served aboard a submarine, the U.S.S. Cabrilla SS-288, for a handful of months before returning home. By the time he did, the world had changed.
"We did not have electricity when I left for service," he said, "only coal stoves for heat and cooking, and battery-powered radios, no television at all. But we did have electricity when I was discharged after the war was over."
McKee also spoke at length about the day being remembered — Dec. 7, 1941, the day of the Pearl Harbor attacks that launched the U.S. participation in the war into motion.
Prior to 8 a.m. local time on that day, Japanese fighters based out of a nearby carrier swept in against the U.S. Pacific fleet, which was anchored at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, on the southern shore of Oahu.
"The big question is, 'Were we prepared?' And the answer is no," McKee said.
An armor-piercing bomb first sank the U.S.S. Arizona and claimed the lives of 1,177 members of its crew.
"There is usually a rainbow-colored sheen on the water around the memorial," McKee said, "caused by the oil that continues to leak from the sunken Arizona."
Other battleships were crippled or destroyed as well, including the Nevada, the California, the Oklahoma, the West Virginia, the Maryland, the Pennsylvania and the Tennessee.
In the end, the attack resulted in the deaths of more than 2,300 Navy, Marines and Army personnel and drove the United States into World War II, which had been raging in Europe for two years at that point. It also, said McKee, marked "the beginning of the end" of Japan's military ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region.
McKee also talked about the memorial that is now in place at Pearl Harbor, particularly that in remembrance of the Arizona.
He said that as visiting children enter, they are "giggling, wide-eyed and don't turn to the battleship's stern to salute the flag, but by the end of the tour, they know the Arizona's location and why that memorial, along with the others at Pearl Harbor, is as important to them as it is to their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents."
Lott also spoke at the event, in lieu of the scheduled speaker, retired U.S. Navy Commander Paul Triponey, who was unable to attend.
Lott reprised a theme from his speech at the Veterans' Day program, where he implored audiences to meet and hear the stories of veterans from World War II while some are still alive to tell them.
He brought forth and read an article from the Trumbull Times in Trumbull, Conn., which made a similar case, saying, "This holiday season, reach out to a grandparent, a parent, an aunt, an uncle or even a neighbor.
Ask them about that day. Ask them about the lives of ordinary Americans during those years of hardship and war ... It's easy to forget that our own hardships are neither the first nor the last we will face as a nation. Others who have come before us are a fount of inspiration. They're tough, and they have a thing or two they can teach us. Don't waste that opportunity."
In that spirit, Lott then asked if there were any World War II veterans in the audience who wished to share their stories, particularly with regard to their memories of Pearl Harbor.
One veteran, Walter Hurd, spoke up. While he was not present at Pearl Harbor, he remembered serving under a sergeant who had been.
Hurd related a story of the time that sergeant, while both of them were in the Netherlands, had led his group in breaking into a church and capturing 20 Germans on a Sunday afternoon.
He also recalled the day of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Hurd said he first became aware when the announcement was made. At the time, he was in a restaurant with a number of other people, including a waitress he had known from school.
At the end of the program — VFW Post 9044's last for the year — Pallone wished everyone a safe and happy Christmas and New Year's Day.