Legend lost: Pennsylvania Pearl Harbor survivor dies at 102
By PATRICK O'SHEA | Beaver County Times | Published: December 27, 2020
ELLWOOD CITY, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Dec. 7 is universally recognized as the day an attack on Pearl Harbor led to the United States' entry into World War II.
But for Ellwood City area residents that also is the day they recognize one of their hometown heroes, who was one of the first people injured in the Japanese bombardment and one of the few survivors left from that fateful day.
Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Michael Gasper had been too ill to attend related ceremonies in recent years and now he has joined his fallen colleagues.
Gasper died Dec. 20 at his Ellwood City home at the age of 102.
His 100th birthday was a massive community celebration that led to Ellwood City declaring Dec. 7 as Joe Gasper Day in perpetuity. Because of his service and longevity, Gasper was an international celebrity.
For years, people throughout the world have been sending him WWII memorabilia and letters asking him to autograph photos of himself. The missives have come from everywhere possible, including Japan.
There are no clear figures available on how many Pearl Harbor survivors remain alive, but the numbers in the U.S. were down to under 2,500 a few years ago.
According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, only 325,574 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2020. A total of 18,614 were in Pennsylvania. Experts estimate the last WWII veteran will die in 2043, but that could be hastened by factors such as the COVID pandemic.
For Gasper, his service started with him becoming part of President Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, traveling to Mexico and Panama and helping with the recovery from the 1936 Johnstown Flood. He joined the Army in 1937 and was a drill instructor for many bases before being stationed at Pearl Harbor.
In a September 2020 story in The Ledger, Gasper recounted his memories of the Japanese surprise attack:
"I was a drill sergeant, and we were on the hill above Pearl Harbor on maneuvers. At first, we didn't know what was going on, but the planes came over so low we could see the faces of the Japanese. There were three waves of planes," he said. "Bombs were dropping everywhere. My command car was hit, and I was thrown down a 70-foot cliff."
Gasper said he laid there for a long time. His friend's leg was bleeding and he put a tourniquet on it.
Gasper said hundreds of bombers just kept coming. He could see the ships being hit in the harbor. He lost many friends that day, including some he had just seen a few days before on the USS Arizona.
During the attack, a total of 2,355 servicemen were killed, 1,143 wounded, 21 ships had either been sunk or damaged and more than 188 U.S. aircraft destroyed.
Gasper recovered from his injuries, although he was left with recurring pain in his left leg and back, and returned to serve until August 1945, receiving many awards including three Bronze Stars.
After the war, Gasper worked in local mills and opened the first self-serve liquor store in 1959 in Neshannock Township. A skilled carpenter, he helped with the construction of several Catholic churches in Ellwood City, also remaining very involved in church social groups.
In the most recent acknowledgment of Joe Gasper Day, Ellwood City Mayor Anthony Court earlier this month praised the centenarian.
"It is a privilege to honor, Joseph Gasper, a Pearl Harbor survivor who served our country with honor and dignity," he said. "Thank you, Mr. Gasper, we are truly blessed to know you!"
A private family ceremony was held Dec. 23, and he was buried in Locust Grove Cemetery.