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Pearl Harbor Survivors Struggle to Keep Legacy Alive

On the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, this San Gabriel Valley survivor says the day will soon fade from memory.

Pearl Harbor survivor and Glendora resident Theodore Roosevelt, 88, finds it ironic. Years ago, when he was a young boy, he remembers listening to an old Civil War veteran, one of the few left at the time, telling his experiences as he fought battles in Southern fields. It was another era, another century.

And now, as the nation observes the 71st anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt recounts the day he survived the Japanese attacks more than 70 years ago. For today's youth, that day, which history said “will live in infamy,” is a just another battle in a far-off distant time and era, said Roosevelt.

“It’s a thing of the past and it’s done with,” said Roosevelt. “The people who used to be our enemies are now our friends. It’s like it never even happened. We moved on to other wars, other battles.”

With the progression of time, the number of Pearl Harbor survivors is rapidly dwindling. In 2011, the remaining number of the 84,000 servicemen who survived the attacks was listed at 8,000.

And with most survivors in their late 80s or 90s, the day that there will be no one left alive to give a firsthand account of the attacks is drawing near.

The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded last year, citing the failing health of its members. The baton to preserve Pearl Harbor’s memory has now been passed on to members of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors, Inc., the 4,000-member nonprofit with chapters in all of the 50 states.

While he is unsentimental in his recollections of that fateful Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Roosevelt said he is more than happy to tell his story, before the oral histories of that day are gone forever. Roosevelt said he can close his eyes and remember the day as clear as if it happened yesterday.

But at 88, it’s hard to put the memories into words.

“My mind isn’t as sharp anymore,” said Roosevelt, now ailing from Parkinson’s Disease.

But he does recall as a 17-year-old sailor, he was one of youngest men stationed on the U.S.S. Utah.

“It was an ordinary Sunday morning. I got up, got dressed, had breakfast,” said Roosevelt.

He remembers the call to head to their battle stations and without any warning, a massive explosion left a large gaping hole in the ship. As water flooded into the ship, Roosevelt said he remembers watching men drown. He remembers the constant bursts of explosions, planes diving into the sea, the rapid fire of guns. But he survived with hardly a scratch, he said. After the attacks, Roosevelt said he was put on burial detail, pulling maimed and burned bodies from the water.

But Roosevelt refuses to be called a hero, saying he was just doing his job. He describes the 14 World War II major battles he fought in, including those at Midway and Okinawa, with the same matter-of-fact tone.

If there’s anyone from that day in Pearl Harbor who deserves the attention, it’s the people who gave their lives defending their country during the surprise attacks, he said.

“After the war, I got to marry my beautiful wife, had two beautiful children, I have great grandchildren,” said Roosevelt. “I’ve had a full life. Those men, they didn’t have that chance.”

But when the last Pearl Harbor survivor passes on, Roosevelt said the memories of the day will perish with them. The event will become just another footnote in history books, he said.

But if there’s one thing Roosevelt hopes future generations might remember from the legacy of Pearl Harbor, it’s the importance of vigilance.

“The country always needs to be on alert, we need to prepare for anything,” said Roosevelt. “Because just like that, everything can change.”

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