Few Pearl Harbor veterans remain to mark anniversary

Pearl Harbor memorial observance
Matt Nelson, left, took the day off from first grade at Westwood Elementary in Prior Lake to meet some of his heroes -- veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor. His mom, Kathy, brought him to the state's Pearl Harbor memorial observance in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Today marks the 69th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II. It was a defining moment in American history, and one in which Minnesotans played a role that's still remembered, by young and old.

You might wonder if the time has diminished the grip of those fiery hours on the American imagination.

If so, you haven't met Matt Nelson.

He's a first grader at Westwood Elementary school in Prior Lake. But he wasn't in class Tuesday. Instead, he went to St. Paul, to meet some of his heroes -- veterans who were in Pearl Harbor on this day in 1941.

Those veterans were attending Minnesota's official remembrance of the day, at the state's Veterans Service Building.

Matt was by far the youngest person there. He brought a bronze medallion with him, with a picture on one side of the U.S.S. Arizona memorial.

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Matt's mother, Kathy, brought him for the ceremony. He heard some war stories, listened to a rifle squad salute the occasion on the Capitol Mall, and talked with one of the sailors who survived Pearl Harbor.

"Matthew is 7 years old, and he is so interested in Pearl Harbor and war," said Kathy Nelson. "We read about it every night. We do reports on it for no reason. He talks about it to his classmates."

Salute at Pearl Harbor memorial ceremony
The Fort Snelling cemetery rifle squad fired a salute to the veterans of Pearl Harbor at a St. Paul ceremony Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010, on the 69th anniversary of the attack.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

She isn't quite sure why the day that still lives in infamy has caught his attention. But she says it's time well spent.

"Our time of meeting these people is less and less, and there are few of them around," said Nelson. "This is as important as a day in school."

In fact, there were just two survivors of that day on hand at the ceremony in St. Paul. They met just a few yards away from an artifact of the attack -- a mounted deck gun from the USS Ward.

That very 4-inch gun -- manned by a crew of naval reservists from Minnesota -- sank a Japanese submarine at the mouth of Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. It was the second American shot fired in World War II.

Pearl Harbor survivor
Richard Thill is president of the Twin Cities Pearl Harbor Survivor Association.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

There were 84 Minnesota reservists aboard the USS Ward that day. Barely more than a dozen are still alive, and few were well enough to attend Tuesday's ceremony.

Dick Pepin of St. Paul was a deckhand on the Ward, and watched gunfire from the bridge, where he was on duty. The crew was lining the rail of the ship below him.

"After the shot is fired, there's a big hooray, so they saw this conning tower was struck," recalled Pepin. "The skipper got orders from them that they made a direct hit."

That was about 6:45 the morning of Dec. 7, just minutes before Japanese bombers swooped down to attack the rest of the American fleet.

Richard Thill, 87, of St. Paul, was also on the Ward that day. Serving as a cook before becoming a sighter at Pearl Harbor, Thill said many aboard the ship didn't understand the historical importance of the attack.

"We just tried to go about our jobs and to stay alive. Guys would make bets about whether [the U.S.] was going to declare war. Someone bet me a carton of cigarettes that we would," he said. "I lost the bet, but then again I didn't smoke."

Thill is the youngest member of the survivors association's Minnesota chapter, and also serves as its president.

Thill said many of the Minnesotans were neighborhood friends who decided to enlist together. Some of them were even too young to enlist -- Thill said his father signed a document that claimed the then 16-year-old was of age to enlist in the Navy.

"It was the thing to do at that time," Thill said. "A lot of young guys lied about [their ages]."

Thill and Pepin are part of a group of Minnesota veterans dubbed the "First Shot Club." The group has met frequently throughout the years, but dwindling numbers have forced it to disassemble.

Pepin's daughter, Denise, said many of its members have died, including the group's former president.

"They would get together every week for breakfast, and every month for their club, and have their annual meeting in September every year," she said. "This was the first year that they didn't meet. They just didn't have enough people to have the annual meeting."

Thill said those who are left are always happy to see and hear from each other.

"We shared so much as kids. We've really grown old together," he said.