Saturday, December 5, 2009
Tomorrow marks the 68th anniversary of Pearl Harbor bombing. Let's take time to remember those who lost their lives and also think about how the country was changed by this event.
Editor's note: Monday marks the 68th anniversary of a world-changing event: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the years since the attack, the number of veterans who survived that day has dwindled. Among them is a handful in Georgia. Here’s the story of one of them, former Marine Pfc. Mack Abbot.
Mack Abbott was a young Marine stationed at Pearl Harbor 68 years ago. He’s shown here in a copy of a photo of him and fellow Marines on their way from Quantico, Va., to Pearl Harbor.
Sunday at last! Today, Mack Abbott would begin learning to fly. The young Marine admired those men and machines, cleaving the clouds. He had an appointment at a civilian field.
The base was quiet. People were on weekend leave or enjoying the stillness of an island morning. Pfc. Abbott went to the mess hall, then returned to his barracks. It overlooked the harbor, where much of the armored might of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet was moored.
Two buddies, still in their boxer shorts, were talking. He plopped down on a bunk and joined their conversation. What they discussed, he cannot remember.
But he does recall what happened just at 8 o’clock that morning, nearly seven decades ago.
An explosion rocked the air. The three ran to the window, looked out. They saw a flash of metal emblazoned with a red circle, the symbol of the Empire of the Rising Sun. A warplane flew past, so close they could see the men inside.
“It looked like they were laughing at us.”
For Abbott and everyone else stationed on that Hawaiian base, the big war began in that moment. It started 68 years ago tomorrow, Pearl Harbor Day.
Mack Abbott is 87, proud to report that he weighs now what he did when he mustered out of active duty — 175 pounds. He lives in a Gainesville adult retirement community, close to his children. Precious, a quiet toy poodle, follows Abbott about his tiny apartment. The medals, campaign ribbons and other paraphernalia on its walls are reminders that he fought across the Pacific — Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Saipan, Tinian, among others.
On a recent afternoon, Abbott donned a navy blazer adorned with the blue-and-white ribbon marking him as a Pearl Harbor survivor. A northerly wind bullied a magnolia outside his window, the sun casting shadows on shoulders that once carried weaponry through jungle and plain. Trained in engineering, he was attached to the 1st Marine Division’s 3rd Defense Battalion.
He was taught to shoot, too.
When the plane passed his window that morning in 1941, “my training took over,” said Abbott. He ran for his rifle, an ancient but accurate 1903 Springfield. He sprinted downstairs, across a field dark with the shadows of enemy aircraft, to the armory. A corporal stood between the private and the ammunition. No requisition, said the corporal, no ammo.
A sergeant ran in. “Break out the ammo!” he bawled. The corporal handed Abbott a bandolier of bullets. The sergeant turned to the 19-year-old Marine.
“You go outside and start shooting at those planes!” he barked. Abbott returned to the field, where others had gathered. Rifles and handguns popped, cracked, boomed: It was like shooting at big birds.
“They were hardly any higher than this ceiling,” said Abbott. “I don’t think they [pilots] saw us.”
The pilots looked, instead, to the anchored battleships and destroyers, lined up like travelers waiting for a train. They dove and bombed, dealt death in countless ways. Fire bloomed like wildflowers.
Pfc. Abbott exhausted his bandolier. A buddy tossed him another. Abbott clacked it into place, aimed. The world became a place of flame and smoke and bodies.
College, family, reunions
The private would become a corporal, then a sergeant. He mustered out, as muscled as any weight lifter, in 1945. He never did learn to fly.
A native of Birmingham, he hadn’t finished high school. That didn’t stop him from taking a test to enter the University of Houston, which a pal recommended. “Oddly enough, I passed.”
Abbott enrolled in the engineering school, where he ran into a foe as intractable as a Japanese garrison: college-level math. He left the university without graduating and began looking for a job.
A company that made pipe fittings interviewed him. “They asked me if I went to college, and I said yes,” Abbott said. “They didn’t ask me how long I went.”
It proved a good fit. Abbott dealt closely with engineers and advanced in the company, working in Georgia and Florida. Along the way, he and his wife, Janie, whom he’d met at a part-time job during college, had three children.
The years were rich, filled with trips to see old friends who dodged death that Sunday morning in 1941. His wife, said Abbott, was a nearly constant presence on those trips until she died 12 years ago.
“She traveled with me everywhere I went,” Abbott said.
A photo of Janie and the kids hangs on an apartment wall. They are dressed as if for church, starched and presentable. Abbott still has the Marine’s face — a firm jaw and a confident smile, topped by eyes that have seen dangerous things.
Those were good days. A lot of the guys who survived Pearl Harbor were still around in the 1970s, and joined local chapters of the National Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. In the metro area, they met in Snellville — a dozen veterans, usually. Across the state, 142 people were members.
As the years passed, Abbott noticed more empty chairs when the group gathered. Not as many made the trips to national reunions. The same happened at chapters across the nation. In 2006, the national organization declared that its 65th reunion at Pearl Harbor would be the last at the site of the attack. The survivors were just too old to travel that far. Now, the national organization meets on the mainland, this year in Texas.
At its zenith, the association had about 30,000 members. Now, it has about 4,500. Those 142 Georgia members? They are now 22.
The declining numbers sadden Atlanta resident Bob Kerr, director for the organization’s Southeast region, which encompasses chapters in eight states. Last year, when the survivors held their national reunion in Texas, he and just two others from Georgia attended.
“We are going down the hill very fast,” said Kerr, who was at the Army’s Hickam Field, adjacent to the Navy base, during the attack. “I’m 88. I know my days are counted.”
Abbott, whose only activity this Pearl Harbor Day will be making a presentation at the facility where he lives, has no illusions, either. “There aren’t many of us left, now.”
Maybe you had to be there, or at least be alive 68 years ago, to understand Pearl Harbor’s impact on the national psyche. Our shores had been invaded, our sovereignty assailed.
“It threw the entire nation into a state of panic and uncertainty,” said Gordon “Nick” Mueller, the president and CEO of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. “When Pearl Harbor hit us, it was like a gut punch.”
It was 9/11 long before terrorists worked their evil in New York, Washington and in the skies over rural Pennsylvania — only worse. At the time of the attacks eight years ago, “We were the strongest nation in the world,” he said. In 1941, the U.S. Army was about the same size as Romania’s.
The attack lasted just under two hours. The official casualty count: 2,402 deaths; four battleships — including the USS Arizona, which entombed more than 1,100 men — sunk; three cruisers, three destroyers and a mine layer, damaged or sunk; and 188 airplanes, most which never left the ground, destroyed.
By 10 a.m., the attackers were gone, heading back to Japanese aircraft carriers nearly 300 miles away. Horns sounded, men yelled, officers hustled to make order out of chaos.
Abbott helped load the wounded onto hospital trucks, discovering that burned skin slides off arms and legs like wet paper. In the days following the attack, he patrolled the base’s fuel depot, eating World War I-era hardtack that the passage of decades had failed to soften. On Dec. 15, he boarded the USS Thornton, an aged destroyer bound for Wake Island but diverted to Palmyra Atoll when Wake fell to the Japanese. From there, Abbott and others would begin an island hop across the Pacific that brought them ever closer to the nation that ruined an American illusion.
Abbott, with a 19-year-old’s bravado, was ready to go.
“Pearl Harbor was all right,” said Abbott. Yet the fight was elsewhere, and he was ready to hit back.
But that is another story, another memory. Tomorrow belongs to Abbott and other old Marines, soldiers and sailors who found war outside their window one December day.
Article courtesy of Atlanta Journal by Mark Davis