Pearl Harbor survivor numbers dwindle
Last year at this time, Harold Bruschwein marked his survival of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor at a reunion in Hawaii. "That was sort of a sad moment," said Bruschwein, 91, of Wahpeton, N.D. "It was probably the last time I'll go over there...
Last year at this time, Harold Bruschwein marked his survival of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor at a reunion in Hawaii.
"That was sort of a sad moment," said Bruschwein, 91, of Wahpeton, N.D. "It was probably the last time I'll go over there, at my age."
As the 66th Pearl Harbor anniversary dawns, survivors of the attack are dwindling. So are the groups they formed to remember the day that changed their lives - and the United States - forever.
The North Dakota chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association shrunk to four members by the time it disbanded earlier this year.
They were Bruschwein, Agnes Shurr of Grand Forks, Clement Lonski of Jamestown and John Martin of Bismarck.
"We're down to just these four, and we couldn't even have a quorum or anything. We decided that we might as well (disband), give up," said Bruschwein, an Army officer whose unit was trained to look for sabotage. They patrolled Honolulu for 11 days before the Japanese attacked.
Years ago, the group gathered each Dec. 7. But as members aged and didn't want to chance the weather, the annual meetings moved to April, said Martin and his wife, Ethyl Martin.
He was aboard the USS Tennessee when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.
When members met, they dined together, looked at memorabilia and photos, and reminisced.
"Like most veterans, whenever you get together you start talking about all your memories and what happened," Bruschwein said. "There's no other group that can appreciate what you were talking about, except the people who were there."
About 20 people came to the meetings at its peak, John Martin said.
Now the chapter's effects, including a flag, papers and letters, are at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
The group's story isn't unique, especially in sparsely populated states like North Dakota, said Jim Evans, national secretary of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. It has about 5,000 members now, he said.
He can think of five or six other chapters nationwide that are disbanding or that will disband soon.
"Unfortunately we're getting kind of old, and it's hard to get people to be chapter officers," Evans said.
In some areas, a group called the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors assists the World War II veterans.
"They help us out very much," he said. "Some chapters wouldn't be there if it wasn't for them."
Locally, there aren't any groups that are exclusively for World War II veterans, said Jim Brent, the Cass County veterans service officer.
But the leaders of popular veterans groups these days are often younger than the World War II veterans.
Most of the American Legion leaders are between 40 to 60 years old, estimated Dave Rice, vice commander of the Eastern Region Department, based in Fargo.
"A lot of the older ones are still active, but they've done their turn," he said.
The federal Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that of the 16.1 million Americans who served in World War II, 2.9 million are living.
Telling the story
Agnes Shurr of Grand Forks, N.D., said she's the only Navy nurse left of 13 stationed on the USS Solace on Dec. 7, 1941.
Shurr, 92, is a lifelong member of the National Association of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, though she was not active in the state chapter.
The distance between the annual meeting in Bismarck and Grand Forks was a factor. So was her gender.
"It was not really comfortable to go," Shurr said. "Not that the men weren't gentleman. They were. They were really nice people."
At one time there were several Pearl Harbor survivors in Jamestown, N.D. Now Clement Lonski, another member of the disbanded Pearl Harbor chapter, is the only one.
"To me, right now, it's just another day," he said of the anniversary. "There isn't too many people who have lived through it. They're gone."
He was aboard the USS Antares, serving as a messenger for the commodore.
"I was a little, scared boy, just alike all the rest of them," he said.
Lonski, 86, thinks young people could use a history lesson about Pearl Harbor. When he visited his daughter in Florida recently, children didn't seem to know much about it.
The survivors' stories become more precious as time passes. All have been featured in news stories, and some have obvious practice at being photographed.
Lonski has a certificate on his wall from being the guest of honor at a banquet.
Shurr's story is captured on recording at the North Dakota Historical Society. She is weary from retelling the story.
"I've told it so many times, it seems that that's enough," Shurr said. "It happened so long ago, and there are so many other things to think about. The end of the war, for example, was pretty wonderful."