Lenoard Nielsen and Edward Hall, believed to be the last two survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor living in Las Vegas, aren’t sure that the lessons from the “date which will live in infamy” will withstand the test of time.
“Today, if you walk out on the street and talk to X number of people and (say) do you believe what President Roosevelt said all those years back? Most people don’t know,” said Nielsen, 97. “They’ve never heard it, or they’ve read it but they don’t believe it. What does it really mean?”
Nielsen, who was a 19-year-old sailor on the USS Solace hospital ship, and Hall, an 18-year-old Army private who was scrubbing pots and pans when Japan attacked the U.S. military facility in Oahu, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, say that gravely concerns them.
Hall, 96, one of the last presidents of the disbanded local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, also is pessimistic that memories of the attack will persist.
“It’ll be forgotten, just like the Civil War, or the Spanish American War,” Hall predicted. “People don’t remember them … even World War I, even World War II is being forgotten.”
Testing the public
The Review-Journal decided to test the veterans’ belief through a series of random interviews near the Strip.
Some respondents stumbled.
“The day of infamy. Never heard of it,” said 28-year-old Michael Terry from Utah as he made his way to a conference on Wednesday morning.
But with a few hints, his memory began to click.
“On Dec. 12, 1942?” he said, missing the actual date by a year and a few days. “The Japanese attacked our fleet on Pearl Harbor. It was kind of a sneak attack, and it decimated our ships. … We lost a lot of people then, a lot of resources. It brought us into World War II.”
Others, especially the young, didn’t know much about the attack at all.
One Las Vegas local in her early 20s, who identified herself only as Becca, said she believed Pearl Harbor is in Japan.
“I know it’s something to do with Japan and a big bomb happened, a lot of people died. It happened a really long time ago, and people are still affected by it,” she said. “I think it happened during the World War?”
The older generation, including Sandy and Stephen Stay, 77 and 78, respectively, did better, recalling the dates of the attack and demonstrating a solid grasp of the basic facts.
“It’s something we shouldn’t forget because it was an attack on our country,” said Sandy Stay. “… A lot of people have forgotten that we need to pay attention to other countries. We need to maintain our position in the world and not ever let something like that happen again.”
David Cerjan, 54, a retired Army captain, also knew the day well.
“We had war on two fronts (in Europe and the Pacific),” he said. “For a former military guy, a war on two fronts is a very powerful thing and unfortunately we’re in a day and age with a lot of threats and that could happen.”
‘It changed a generation’
“We get a little comfortable in the U.S. in that there’s conflicts around the world, and we’re very fortunate,” he said. “We need to make sure that it doesn’t come to the homeland and unfortunately it did come to the homeland when it hit Hawaii and it had a ripple effect for the next few years, and it changed a generation.”
Mary Hagge from Omaha, Nebraska, said her father served in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. She took the opportunity to educate her 8-year-old granddaughter about the Pearl Harbor attack.
“I would hope that the history in the schools will show them exactly what happened, how it happened, the motivation for the Japanese coming into it and how we recovered,” she said. “America’s a great country and we recovered. I think we did the right thing.”
But Hall said public schools, at least those in Southern Nevada, aren’t doing their part to keep alive the memory of the attack, which left 2,403 Americans dead, including 68 civilians.
Hall said members used to give talks at Clark County schools “to keep the children updated on history.”
That ended a few years ago when he never received a response from the Board of Education to the annual offer.
“I never got a reply, they never answered my letter, and from there on it just seemed like we didn’t exist as far as they were concerned,” he said. “They didn’t want any part of us.”
On that day 78 years ago, Hall stood outside a mess hall at nearby Hickam Field while a Zero flew at him, its machine guns kicking up chunks of asphalt. He remembers making eye contact with some of the Japanese pilots.
“The guys looked down at you smiling; he thought he was having fun, and I guess he was at our expense,” said Hall, who ended up driving a makeshift ambulance that day to collect the wounded and transport them to care.
“Now that I’m one of the few of the last, I want to keep the memory of Pearl Harbor alive.
“This country better wake up or it’s going to happen again, that nobody will pay attention to the warning signs, like that day of December 7, 1941,” he said.
Education should begin at home
Nielsen said he thinks it’s a matter of education at home, as well as in school.
“We who are raising families need to explain what happened, where are we, would we want to see it happen again, could it happen again. I think we have a long way to go there,” he said.
“People should remember the day and pass it on to the younger generations in a manner that they understand what can happen, how close we came to not being United States and such,” he said. “It might make people appreciate more America being free.”
Nielsen, an apprentice seaman from Salina, Utah, was aboard the USS Solace hospital ship recovering from an emergency appendectomy on the morning of Pearl Harbor. He joined other volunteers to rescue fellow sailors from the fiery oil slick created by the air attack. They hopped in longboats and gigs and rushed toward the black smoke billowing from the USS Arizona, which was badly damaged and would soon sink.
“I’ve lived through a lot of things or places or events since Pearl Harbor, and I can never forget the visual acts that I have in my head,” Nielsen said. “I watched the Oklahoma roll over. I think about the guys, the people that were upside down.”
And even though Nielsen said he doesn’t foresee there will be a day without conflicts, being in the service taught him to depend on the next guy, regardless of their personal beliefs or race.
“My time in the Navy, a little over six years, I wouldn’t trade for anything,” he said. “The one thing that they taught me was we’re all human. We all have a breaking point. We all need each other.”