Last few Minn. Pearl Harbor vets gather to share stories

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day
Pearl Harbor survivor Richard Thill observed a moment of silence during a Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day event at the Veterans Service Building in St. Paul, Minn., Wednesday, Dec. 7 2011. Thill and others board the USS Ward were patrolling the entrance to Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 when they encountered a Japanese midget submarine and sank it, only a few hours before the Japanese attacked.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Three of Minnesota's remaining Pearl Harbor survivors were on hand Wednesday for a ceremony in St. Paul marking the 70th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack.

There aren't very many survivors left. But one of them presented a detailed account of his experiences aboard the USS Ward, the ship that's credited with firing the first American shots of World War II.

A crew of 140 was aboard the destroyer USS Ward on December 7, 1941. Among them were 84 Minnesotans, who were serving in the Naval Reserve. Richard Thill of St. Paul said he and his shipmates were on a routine patrol of restricted waters outside the harbor's mouth.

"We were on patrol, and we had just gotten a new captain the day before Dec. 7. He came on board and took command on Dec. 6, and then we went on patrol on the seventh. He started out with a bang, I can tell you that," Thill said.

Thill is now 88, but his memories from 70 years ago remain vivid. As the guest speaker of the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day Ceremony, Thill had the audience of mostly veterans and state officials hanging on his every word.

He described the Ward's encounter that morning with an unmarked Japanese midget submarine. He said his captain had initially planned to ram the sub's exposed conning tower, but he decided instead to fire the ship's guns. One of those 50 caliber guns sits on the State Capitol grounds, near the Veteran Service Building in St. Paul.

"The sinking of the submarine was an hour before the airplanes came," he said. "We didn't know who it was. We really didn't know who, because it didn't have any identification. We were wondering was this just a trick to test our new captain?"

Thill said the Ward also stopped a fishing boat that morning, and its Japanese-speaking crew mysteriously surrendered. He soon heard explosions in the distance, saw smoke rising from the harbor and watched the sky above fill with airplanes. But Thill said there wasn't much anyone could do.

"A lot of these planes flew right over us after they had gotten rid of their bombs and ammunition," Thill said. "We didn't have any — we had two machine guns on there, and they jammed up."

One of Thill's shipmates that day on the USS Ward was Donald Pepin. The now 90-year-old Maplewood resident said he remembers it was hard to absorb what was unfolding before his eyes.

"The surprise attack is definitely a big surprise. It's difficult to handle," Pepin said. "But you have a duty to do at a certain position aboard the ship, and that's all you can do."

Back at Pearl Harbor, George Vandersluis was a Marine onboard the USS Honolulu. The 95-year-old Hastings resident had a much closer view of the attack, but he escaped unharmed.

"We took one hit, not the ship directly. But it hit the dock along side of us and went into the side of our ship down below. So, we ended up in dry dock the next day, but that was just about it," he said.

Vandersluis, Pepin and Thill are members of the Minnesota Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Thill also serves as president and chaplain. There used to be 500 members and three active chapters in the state. But it's been 70 years since the day that tied these men together, and Thill says time has taken its toll.

"The other two chapters have already dissolved because they died off or they got too old to be able to come any more," Thill said. "Our chapter, there's 10 of us, but there's only four of us that are up and around."

The story is the same throughout the United States. The national association of Pearl Harbor survivors is set to disband at the end of the year. Officials say there are simply not enough members left to keep it running.

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