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Pearl Harbor survivors recall chilling day

By ST. JOHN BARNED-SMITH | Houston Chronicle | Published: December 7, 2015

HOUSTON (Tribune News Service) — It's been almost three-quarters of a century since Japanese fighter pilots soared across the waters off Oahu and tried to kill William Hardy Burt and his fellow G.I.s, stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe, a few miles northeast of Pearl Harbor.

Burt, then an 18-year-old apprentice seaman, was stationed at the base with hundreds other sailors who manned 36 PBY Catalina "flying boats," workhorse anti-submarine and maritime patrol seaplanes.

The south Texas native watched as low-flying Zeroes strafed several Catalinas moored in the bay before turning towards the planes parked by the base's hangars onshore.

As Japanese bullets pockmarked the concrete floor of the hangar where Burt and his squadmates had gathered for morning roll call, they began belting ammunition to pass to machine gunners trying to return fire.

"I was scared to death," Burt recounted last week at his home in northwest Harris County.

The attack destroyed 27 of the base's planes and killed 18 sailors. Minutes after the initial attack on Naval Air Station Kaneohe, the main contingent of Japanese bombers appeared in the skies across the island and unleashed a rain of lead and ordnance on the unsuspecting American forces quartered at Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese pilots dropped their last bombs and torpedoes and flew away, 2,403 American servicemen lay dead and almost 1,200 more were wounded. Nineteen major U.S. ships and more than 300 airplanes had been damaged or destroyed, though all but three of the ships were eventually salvaged.

"We didn't sleep for a week or two," the lean and goateed 92-year-old said, his words marked by a subtle south Texas drawl. "We didn't know if they were going to come back."

Until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the assault was the largest by a foreign force on American soil. In a radio address the day after the assault, President Franklin D. Roosevelt labelled Dec. 7 "a date which will live in infamy" and called for war, prodding an otherwise reluctant American public into action.

Sixteen million American servicemen and women would ultimately serve in World War II, more than a million of whom were killed or wounded.

Wisps of memory

Seventy-four years after the attack, the ranks of those who were present at the battle have thinned considerably. There were 84,168 uniformed personnel present for the attack on Pearl Harbor. When the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association was created in 1958, about 58,000 servicemen joined, said William Muehleib, a past president of the association, which dissolved in 2011 because so many of its members were in poor health or had passed away. Muehleib estimates that about 2,500 may still be alive.

Even as the ranks dwindle, the survivors and their descendants say the lessons of that day have taken on new relevance with the proliferation of violence at home and abroad.

"You have to be aware of what's going on in the world, it's particularly true at this time," Muehleib said, noting that the age of "conventional" warfare, with clear-cut enemies and rules of conflict, has long since passed.

Besides Burt, just a few Pearl Harbor survivors are still living in the Houston area. Jill Allen was a 3-year-old whose father Capt. Loyd George Jost was an Army dentist stationed on Oahu at the time of the attack.

That morning, her mother had been planning a day at a nearby beach. When the bombs fell, she and her mother and sister were rushed to an underground bunker. Because she was so young, all she has are wisps of memory from that time, of the earthen steps leading underground as she and her mother waited, anxiously wondering what had happened to Jost, who worked feverishly attending to dying and wounded servicemen as American forces on Pearl Harbor regrouped and prepared for war.

"We did not know what happened to him, or if he even reached the hospital," Allen told a crowd aboard the Battleship Texas Saturday, at an annual Pearl Harbor Day memorial in La Porte.

Six weeks after the attacks, she and her family were evacuated to San Francisco, on a 10-day voyage zigzagging along the Alaskan coastline as the ship dodged enemy submarines.

Allen, now 77, said the mass shooting attacks in San Bernardino and Paris underscore the need for Americans to stay vigilant.

"Keep America alert," she said, echoing the PHSA's motto.

Legacy, sacrifice

Burt speaks about the attacks with a quiet reserve. His stint in the Navy took him to Guadalcanal, Midway and Wake islands and other parts of the Pacific. As a parachute rigger, he was one element in the vast machinery of the American military, the last line of defense for servicemen shot out of the sky. After being discharged from the Navy, he spent several years working at his father's dairy farm in Arkansas then served a three-year stint in the U.S. Air Force. He returned to Texas, worked as an operator at a metal refinery near Corpus Christi and then as a machinist near Dallas, before retiring and moving to Houston.

He kept tight-lipped about his experiences, said Juanita Burt, his 90-year-old wife.

"He just never talks about it," she said, explaining she finally learned the details of her husband's service earlier this year.

As a serviceman involved in World War II, he was part of a phalanx that faced down the aggression of Germany and Japan.

That legacy and the sacrifice he and his friends made in World War II weighed on him in recent weeks, as Western nations plotted new bombing campaigns against Syria and President Barack Obama pledged more troops to fight jihadists in Afghanistan and Syria.

"We're having to go and do their fighting," he said.

"Those people in Europe should try and solve those problems, instead of us losing all our young kids," he said. "They should fight their own war."

©2015 the Houston Chronicle
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