A chill wafted through the trees and concrete memorials at Veterans Memorial Park in Colusa on Dec. 7, as members of the Colusa Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Maxwell American Legion, and a scant few members of the public gathered to honor the more than 2,400 Americans who died 77 years earlier when the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force attacked the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Naval Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
“It was a day that defined America and changed the world,” said VFW Post No. 2441 Commander Joe Bowers, an Iraq War veteran who now leads the subsequent generations of war veterans who followed the sacrifice and valor epitomized by those who fought in World War II.
Largely veterans who served during the Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan/Iraq wars were in charge of similar ceremonies held nationwide last Friday, as most of those who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and other World War II veterans are now gone. Only five survivors of the USS Arizona, the last of the Pennsylvania class of “super-dreadnought” battleships, which suffered the greatest loss of human life in the attack, are still alive. And for the first time since 1941, the Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony at the site of the sunken ship in Oahu this year went on without them, due to their poor health. Ray Chavez, who was previously the oldest Pearl Harbor survivor, died a few weeks ago at age 106.
“As those able to provide firsthand accounts leave the ranks of the living, it is up to us to keep their legacies alive,” Bowers said, at the Colusa ceremony.
Bowers said Pearl Harbor survivors were fearless, and that while the Japanese thought they would strike a crippling blow to the U.S. Navy with the early morning surprise attack, the Americans still managed to destroy 29 enemy planes, damage 29 others, and sink or beach five of Japan’s small submarines before the attack was over.
“Six American battleships that were sunk or damaged during the attack were restored, refloated, and returned to service,” Bowers said. “Survivors, who were physically able to continue their service, fought on for the duration of the war or until wounded or killed. For the United States, Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of the war. For Japan, it was the beginning of the end. And for those heroes of 77 years ago, we shall always be grateful.”
Bowers, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and assumed command of the VFW Post in July, is the first Iraq War veteran at the helm. The Colusa VFW and American Legion Post No. 218 are comprised largely of veterans who served in the Vietnam War or during that era, replacing the World War I and II veterans who established the local organizations decades ago.
Bowers said 60 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was caught off guard with another painful blow on Sept. 11, 2001, which sparked another war and a response from yet another generation of veterans, who continue to fight against terrorism still. “Just as the Pearl Harbor heroes were likely inspired by the doughboys of World War I, the valor that we continue to witness among today’s military is at least partially the result of young men and women who want to live up to the legacies of those who preceded them,” Bowers said.
While the Pearl Harbor Day ceremony was short, both Bowers and VWF Chaplain George Sanders gave moving tributes. The ceremony also included Miss Colusa County Bailey Wilson, who sang the National Anthem. The seven-member VFW and American Legion Honor Guard fired a three-shot rifle volley in remembrance of the dead, and Ron Simmons performed “Taps.”
Don Parry, of Colusa, a U.S. Air Force veteran, who served from 1960-1964, attended the Pearl Harbor Day ceremony for the first time.
He said the ceremony was appropriately solemn for the occasion and that the turnout of local VFW and American Legion members was impressive.
“This whole area has a very good representation of veterans,” Parry said. “The VFW does a lot for this community, and they have a great turnout at every veterans event, in general.”
Although Congress established National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day in 1994 to honor those who died as a result of the attack on U.S. military forces in Hawaii, no member of the Colusa City Council or Colusa County Board of Supervisors, or their representatives, were present for the annual ceremony. However, the American Flag at the Veterans Memorial flew at half-staff until sunset to honor the 2,403 Americans who were killed. ν