Pearl Harbor attack at 75: Vets keep memories alive
John Lavrakas, 101, of Bloomfield Hills, witnessed the devastation as battleships burned at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News
Midland — It was a day when bombs and bullets fell from the sky, when the air tasted like oil, when a massive U.S. battleship was floating upside down and others were on fire.
Michiganians Don Bloomfield and John Lavrakas were there.
They’re part of a group, brethren who bore witness to the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that seems to get smaller every day. These aging sentinels, in their 90s and triple digits, worry that, when they die, they’ll take the importance of the event with them.
With the 75th anniversary of the Japanese bombing Wednesday, they fret that a date that is supposed to live in infamy will slip from notoriety.
“It’s important to remember. We never should forget,” said Bloomfield, 95, of Midland.
The attack, which occurred when the United States wasn’t at war, stunned the nation. It damaged all eight battleships at the naval base and killed 2,400 people.
It catapulted the country into World War II, leading to the deaths of another 400,000 Americans.
Lavrakas preaches constant vigilance. The message continues to resonate during a time the nation is mostly at peace but wary of terrorist attacks.
“We lost so many people,” said Lavrakas, 101, of Bloomfield Hills. “It was a terrible mess.”
An awful lot of damage
The terrible mess began shortly after Bloomfield finished breakfast at the mess hall.
He said he remembers everything about that day. Three quarters of a century haven’t dimmed the view.
He was standing outside when a half dozen planes flew overhead. He then heard explosions several miles away. He didn’t know if the planes were American or foreign, if it was a drill or an attack.
“I didn’t know who it was or what it was,” he said.
Bloomfield, then 20, scampered to his barracks for safety. His job in the Army was supposed to be a fire truck operator, but the camp didn’t have a fire truck. So he did odd jobs, working as a clerk, messenger, fire inspector.
After the morning attack, he spent the rest of the day running empty sand bags to the beach, where they were filled and piled high in belated barricades.
He saw the utter devastation at several Army airfields, bombed-out buildings, planes in pieces. In all, 188 aircraft were destroyed.
During one trip, his Jeep rode behind a flatbed truck loaded with filled body bags.
“There was a lot, an awful lot, of damage,” he said.
Bloomfield, working all day without a break, ended the day where he began, at the mess hall. He and his partner gobbled down spam and cheese sandwiches.
‘One of the only ones left’
While Bloomfield saw the destruction by land, others saw it by sea.
Lavrakas was a Navy ensign who worked in the engine room of the USS Salt Lake City. The cruiser was supposed to be in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack, but a storm had slowed its return from a two-week trip.
The ship was eight hours from the naval base when a startling announcement came across the public address system.
“The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill,” it said.
When the ship reached the island the next day, Lavrakas saw a ship that had run aground, one that had exploded and four that sank.
Oil in the water seemed a foot thick and it was ablaze, he said.
“How would you feel?” he said when asked his feelings. “You just took it in.”
Over the years, these aging warriors have tried to keep the memories alive.
The Michigan chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association persuaded the government to rename part of Interstate 96 Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway.
The group also erected memorials in two national cemeteries in Michigan. But the monument placed at Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly Township in 2008 turned out to be the organization’s last hurrah.
Two years later, the associated disbanded. Too few members.
Bloomfield misses the meetings where the old warhorses swapped war stories.
“I’m one of the only ones left in Michigan,” he said.
Every anniversary of the attack, Lavrakas is eager to talk about what happened. By spreading the story to as many people as possible, it helps ensure the event will survive long after he’s gone.
In the December of his life, he knows he doesn’t have many Decembers left.
He’s constantly battling pneumonia, kidney failure, a weakened heart. He hobbles on a walker from a bad left knee that fills him with pain.
His last friend from the ship died a decade ago. A younger brother who also served in the Navy died in 2011.
Lavrakas is amazed he’s still here.
“Here I am, sitting and thinking about what happened to me in the Pacific,” he said. “That’s a long time ago.”