With passing of veterans who faced Pearl Harbor surprise attack, legacy shifts to the young
Stars and Stripes December 7, 2023
PEARL HARBOR NATIONAL MEMORIAL, Hawaii — On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, 21-year-old Ira Schab was donning dress whites for what would be a typical morning for the sailor: playing tuba during morning colors aboard the USS Dobbin moored in Pearl Harbor.
It would turn out to be a morning like no other.
As the musician second class pondered the possibility of meeting that day with his brother Allen, a Navy radioman also stationed on Oahu, Schab heard explosions while below deck on the destroyer tender.
“All hell let loose,” Schab, 103, recalled during an interview in his Waikiki Beach hotel room Wednesday, the day before the 82nd annual commemoration of the Japanese surprise attack.
On Thursday morning, Schab and five other veterans who survived the attack — Ed Carroll, Harry Chandler, Herb Elfring, Ken Stevens and Sterling Cale — sat in a place of honor during the ceremony themed “Legacy of Hope” at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
“Today, for those of us in uniform who serve and for those civilian warriors who support our incredible Department of Defense, we stand on the shoulders of these giants in front of us,” Adm. John Aquilino, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told the audience.
‘Did what we had to do’
It was keynote speaker Marine Corps Capt. Ray Hower, however, who stood as the exemplar of military legacy.
He is a third-generation Marine Corps aviator whose father flew fighter jets and grandfather piloted an A-4 Skyhawk during the Vietnam War, where he lost his life.
Hower, a Harrier pilot, is also the great nephew of Lou Conter, 102, the sole living survivor of the USS Arizona, which sank in Pearl Harbor during the attack. Conter was unable to attend the ceremony for health reasons.
“Whenever my uncle Lou or any other veteran of World War II is recognized or thanked for their service, they humbly answer: ‘We just did what we had to do,’ ” Hower said.
“Fair enough. But the fact that you did it, the sacrifices you made, the courage and heroism you showed, the determination to succeed that you demonstrated, the live sacrifice by the fallen, the legacy that you all built, remains unmatched and a lesson that keeps on teaching.
“On behalf of a grateful nation, I thank you for the gifts you have given us and the legacy we inherit,” he said.
The 1941 attack killed 2,403 Americans, sunk or damaged 19 ships and ravaged more than 300 aircraft.
From four carriers, the Japanese navy had launched a 353-aircraft strike force that laid waste to the Pacific Fleet’s Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor, along with other military sites across Oahu.
Among the crippled battleships was the USS Oklahoma, which slowly capsized after being hit by torpedo bombers, claiming the lives of 429 crew members.
The sinking of the USS Arizona took the lives of 1,177 sailors and Marines. Its hulk still sits at the bottom of the harbor, the centerpiece of a memorial to that “day that will live in infamy,” as President Franklin Roosevelt labeled the attack as America entered World War II a day later.
‘Too afraid to be afraid’
When Schab heard the explosion that Sunday morning, he raced topside to see what was happening.
“At the time, I was not that afraid because I was not that smart,” he said jokingly on Wednesday. “I didn’t know what was going on, so I wasn’t afraid. And when I realized it, I was too afraid to be afraid. I felt like I was going in circles.”
Schab saw the nearby USS Utah, a former battleship that had been repurposed into a training and target ship, listing at a stunning angle.
“A ship isn’t at 45-degrees at port,” he said, betraying lingering disbelief at what he saw even with the passing of 82 years.
Musicians did not have battle stations to attend in the event of an attack, Schab said. Their job was to man aid stations to care for wounded and injured.
But before he could do so, an officer ordered him down into one of the magazines to help pass ammunition to the gunners, he said.
Schab has made the pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor numerous times, an “obligation” to the memory of the men who died that day, he said.
But at 103 and with a failing memory, he accepts that this could be his final visit.
Still, he’s aware that such a mindset is contrary to one of the lessons he took away from the shock of that surprise attack.
“You make an assumption,” he said, “and there’s a 90-to-99 percent chance it’s going to be wrong.”