Some 54 years ago, aviation machinist Rich Blome was awakened at 7 a.m. on a Sunday by “some kid” from his unit who insisted that his unit’s hangar was on fire.
Blome, who had been out partying until about 3 a.m., figured it was one of the unit’s planes.
He turned over and tried to go back to sleep. The growing cacophony of noises soon shook the young machinist from his bunk. He looked out to see utter destruction on Ford Island Naval Air Station, Hawaii.
The attack on Pearl Harbor had begun.
Blome and two dozen other members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and their spouses or widows gathered Thursday in the Spokane Valley to remember that day more than a half-century ago when the United States was forced into World War II. “It was a turning point in many of our lives,” said Harold Kern of Odessa, who was aboard the battleship USS Nevada that day. “We didn’t go to war. The war came to us.”
Some doubt the current generation of young men and women know what Pearl Harbor was all about.
“It’ll be forgotten,” said Bill Paulukonis, who was an Army engineer at Wheeler Air Field on the day of the attack. “Schoolchildren today don’t learn anything about it.”
But the talk around the U-shaped dining table at VFW Post 1435 didn’t center on the death and destruction of what President Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.”
The veterans offered some of their lighter anecdotes or marveled at the little twists of fate that allowed them to survive.
Another crew member from the Nevada, Russell Telecky, told how the battleship, though damaged in the attack, managed to get enough extra steam to make coffee an hour later. It so impressed a reporter from Time that the next issue of the magazine noted “Come hell or high water, the Nevada has coffee.”
Telecky survived Pearl Harbor by a fluke. When he graduated from training school, the instructor wanted to send the entire class to the USS Arizona. The rest of the class took a nine-day leave, and went to that battleship. Telecky, who opted not to take the leave because his family was far away in Nebraska, shipped out early and was assigned to the Nevada.
The Arizona was sunk on Dec. 7. All of his classmates were killed.
Even some stories of destruction had humorous endings.
Blome told of the Japanese planes that strafed the hangars. One bullet punctured a large airplane tire lying on the ground, and sent the enlisted man who was sitting on top of it hurtling through the air.
Years later, Blome was a salesman in Montana, and stopped in a bar in Kalispell. The bartender had Navy tatoos, and Blome casually asked if he had been in the war.
At the beginning and the end, said the bartender, and they started swapping stories about Pearl Harbor.
Eventually the bartender told about sitting on an airplane tire between the hangars on Ford Island when a bullet from a Japanese airplane blew up the tire, and sent him flying.
“I was standing right next to you,” said an amazed Blome.
They still remember the ships that sank, the planes that burned and the friends they lost. But the Pearl Harbor survivors try not to dwell on it at their gatherings.
The reason is simple, said Telecky: “If you think about the dirty stuff, you have to cry.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos