‘Hopefully it won’t be forgotten’: With no survivors left, a Pearl Harbor veterans association disbands
By KATHERINE HAFNER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: January 29, 2021
(Tribune News Service) — At its height in the 1970s and ‘80s, the Tidewater chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association boasted several hundred members — sailors who’d survived the infamous 1941 attack and lived to tell the tale.
They gathered often share lunch at the club or picnic, and for more somber occasions like an annual Dec. 7 memorial ceremony at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek. Members watched each other “get married, buried and have grandkids,” said Gerry Chebetar, whose father Frank served as the chapter’s longtime president.
But membership dwindled as folks aged and passed away. Several years ago, with just a handful of members left, the chapter gave up its nonprofit status. By late 2019, the group had lost its last survivor, 97-year-old Paul Moore.
Suddenly the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association found itself an organization in want of survivors. And with the coronavirus pandemic prohibiting the venerated annual ceremony, the decision was made recently to officially disband.
The association had one last act this week, though.
On Wednesday, it donated $1,400 that remained in its accounts to the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society during a small ceremony at Little Creek. That’s what’s left of a fund that used to go toward planting trees with nameplates honoring survivors, and flying in fresh flowers from Hawaii each year for the Dec. 7 memorial.
“We thought especially in today’s times that the funds could be used by these young military families,” Chebetar, 69, said.
He said the treasurer of the group had been a Pearl Harbor survivor who, along with the others, died a few years ago.
The Pearl Harbor attack killed more than 2,400 people, destroyed more than a dozen ships and prompted the United States to enter World War II. It wasn’t unusual for survivors to avoid discussing what they experienced that day. But the association gave them a community of people who understood implicitly.
The Tidewater chapter was formed in 1977, Chebetar said. Originally survivors started meeting at the base and eventually formalized under the national organization.
"Their main goal at the time was to continue on the education to those growing up: let us never forget,” he said, adding they’d speak in local high school government classes about their experiences.
Over the years, the sense of community persisted. The organization and its gatherings were always a part of Susie Rice’s family’s life.
“Everybody ever in the Navy at some point passed through” Hampton Roads, she said with a laugh, giving the association plenty of opportunity to connect with new survivors.
Rice is among the last people in Hampton Roads who were in Honolulu that day — not that she remembers it. She was just over a year old when the Japanese attacked. Her father, John Lewis Radford, was a signalman aboard the submarine Plunger, and the family lived right across from the base’s entrance gate.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Rice’s mother would later tell her, Rice was playing in their backyard when she pointed to the sky and began yelling, ”planes!” as low-flying aircraft passed overhead. Looking to the base, Rice’s mother first thought oil tankers had caught fire, as they had done a few months prior. But soon the true destruction became apparent.
Her father stayed in the Navy for 27 years, moving the family to Hampton Roads in 1956.
Just this week, Rice attended the funeral of one of the last local surviving spouses, Myrtle Dorman, whose husband Benjamin arrived in Hawaii about a week after the 1941 attack, according to Pilot archives.
Rice said one of their last conversations was about what to do with the $1,400. Just returned from the hospital and essentially on her deathbed, Dorman had told Rice, “oh, that’s got to go to the Relief Society.”
It’s sad to see the association disband, Rice said, but she’s glad that it could part with a final good deed, and that there are lasting tributes around the area, including the Little Creek memorial and a Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway segment of Interstate 264.
The loose group that remained had been meeting regularly at Gus and George’s restaurant in Virginia Beach, but the pandemic put a stop to that, too, Chebetar said.
“Everyone is more or less gone,” Chebetar said. “I’m a firm believer in today’s society we need to pass on whatever we can as far as the the history of this country: the good, the bad and the ugly of it. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was indeed the ugly ... Hopefully it won’t be forgotten.”
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