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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Survivors of 1941 attack bring history to life at SFCC

Great niece Amanda Ruggles, left and niece Renee Hansen right, hug Pearl Harbor survivors Warren and Betty Schott, seated, on Wednesday at Spokane Falls Community College. Ruggles helped bring a group of local Pearl Harbor survivors to speak at SFCC. (Colin Mulvany)

The challenge for history teachers has always been to make events of the past come alive to their students. Last week, Spokane Falls Community College instructor Nicole Montgomery received help with that task.

As she covered World War II in one of her classes, student Amanda Ruggles mentioned her great uncle, Warren Schott, was a Pearl Harbor survivor, and asked if Montgomery would like him to talk to the class. She agreed and was put in touch with local historian and author Carol Hipperson.

“It just exploded from there,” Montgomery said.

Indeed, a standing-room-only crowd jammed into the Student Union building on March 14. Students, family members, faculty and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers gathered to hear the eye-witness accounts of folks who were present when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Although the men and women of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association were frail and needed assistance to navigate the platform, their recollections were sharp and riveting.

Hipperson introduced each survivor and prefaced their stories with this sobering fact: “Eighty thousand (military personnel) survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, and today there are less than 3,000 in the U.S. At one time the Lilac City Pearl Harbor Survivors Association had 100 members. Now there are just 10.”

Charlie Boyer is one of them.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he was a 21-year-old seaman stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe. He was driving a truck, bringing someone back from church when he saw an airplane flying toward them. “I said, ‘Look at the show the Army’s putting on,’ ” he recalled. “Then I saw the big ol’ red meatballs on the wings of the plane. I said, ‘Army, hell!’ ”

The crowd sat rapt as Boyer described what happened next. “I stopped, jumped out of the truck and crawled underneath it. I was pretty scared.” It was the first time he’d seen a Japanese fighter.

Sid Kennedy was also stationed at Kaneohe. On the morning of the attack he was in sick bay recovering from minor surgery. “I heard machine gun fire and looked out the window.”

He saw a Japanese plane soaring across the bay. Six people stood outside the door, watching the action, and Kennedy heard someone yell “Get those people back inside!”

Kennedy shrugged. “So, I went out and got them. I could hear the rounds hitting the doorway.”

The morning passed in a blur as he helped move the wounded to the operating room. “One of the worst injuries I saw was a pilot who’d had his leg blown off,” Kennedy said. “Unfortunately, I had to move bodies to the morgue, too.”

In 1957, Kennedy was sent to Japan to help the Japanese Air Force. A student asked, “Was it difficult for you not to hold the attack against the Japanese?”

Kennedy didn’t hesitate to answer. “No,” he said.

Warren Schott was stationed on Ford Island. He and his wife, Betty, had quarters near Battleship Row. Betty Schott heard a loud noise and looked out the bathroom window. She told her husband she saw smoke and fire at the end of the runway. He didn’t believe her.

Still, he got out of bed, looked out and spotted a plane flying low, directly toward them. “I saw the red balls on the wings of the plane,” he said. Schott watched in horror as the plane torpedoed the USS Utah. “I said, ‘Betty, we’re at war!’ ”

They hustled out of their quarters stopping to pick up a young mother and her two children who lived downstairs. “Her husband was in the States,” Betty Schott said. “Barbara and I were in our nightgowns and robes, and shrapnel was falling from the sky.”

The horrific noise added to the overwhelming chaos. Schott gathered them in a car and took off for the administration building. Then he returned to Battleship Row. “I took one of the boats and picked up our fellows who were in the water,” he recalled. The men he pulled out were covered in oil.

Later, Betty Schott found, “They got rid of every towel in my house trying to help clean them up. Finally they took down my kitchen curtains and used them.”

Bob Snider had a different perspective of the attack. His father was a civilian aircraft mechanic working at the military bases on Oahu. That morning, 8-year-old Snider ran to the pier when he heard the noise of the attack. “Father called me into the house,” he recalled. “We watched the Japanese bombers coming – it seemed like they’d never stop.”

And the noise intensified. “It sounded like a terrible hailstorm,” Snider said. But it wasn’t hail – it was shrapnel pelting the house.

Denis Mikkelsen was a 19-year-old sailor aboard the USS West Virginia. He was sleeping in his bunk when the attack began. “I was told to close the hatches, but before I could get them closed the water was pouring in – we were sinking that fast.”

When the order came to abandon ship, he clambered down a rope ladder, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt, and swam to Ford Island.

Like many WWII veterans, Mikkelsen didn’t talk much about his experience. In fact, his wife, Vina, said they’d been married almost 50 years before she knew he was a Pearl Harbor survivor.

Montgomery said her goal for the program was that “students would have a better understanding that this historical event happened to real people.”

It appeared that goal was realized. “It’s not every day you hear an eye-witness account of the start of the war,” said student Karis Darjany. She found the story of Betty Schott’s kitchen curtains particularly moving.

James Duncan, a student at SFCC, served in the Marine Corps. “It struck me that they are all still married,” he said. “So many vets like myself are divorced.”

At the conclusion of the question-and-answer time, a large crowd stood in line waiting to shake hands with the Pearl Harbor survivors. Many asked for the survivors’ autographs and thanked them for their service.

Joe Hansen is a student and veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is amazing,” he said. “I think these guys deserve all the recognition they can get. The things I had to do just pale with what these guys went through.”