Daughter wants Pearl Harbor survivors remembered

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Louella Large holds her index finger and thumb about two inches apart.

That's how much space is devoted in school books to the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, she says.

It's not enough for her.

Large, president of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors, is pained thinking about how the stories of the Japanese sneak attack are fading as the number of Pearl Harbor survivors dwindles.

She doesn't want the "date which will live in infamy" — as President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed — to be forgotten.

"The American people need to know what our forefathers went through at Pearl Harbor," she said while surrounded by Pearl Harbor memorabilia inside her Osnaburg Township home.

Her mission, of course, is getting more difficult with each passing year. Last month, she was notified that 15 survivors had died around the country — and those were just the ones she was told about.

The U.S. Park Service, which oversees the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor, estimates that there are only 2,000 to 2,500 survivors still living.

Even the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded two years ago because of the advanced age of its members, who are now in their 90s, or at least in their late 80s.

Nearly 2,400 people, including military and civilian personnel, were killed during the attack, which pushed the U.S. to enter World War II. Another 1,178 were injured.

Large's father, Army Cpl. Harry Cross, who died in 2005 at age 90, was one of the survivors.

Her dream is to create a stateside library devoted to Pearl Harbor and filled with memorabilia and even videos of survivors telling their individual stories.

Her collection, much of it gathered by her father, includes photos, medals, newspapers and books. She encourages others who don't want to keep memorabilia to send it to the group, which has about 3,500 members.

A library would help keep the memories alive for future generations, said Large, 65, who laid a wreath and spoke on Saturday's anniversary at a special ceremony at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Her speech included graphic and horrific descriptions.

She recounted stories of men in waders and rubber gloves pulling body parts out of the water. Heads falling off charred carcasses. And dead bodies being stacked up inside the hospital.

"People don't know what our men and women went through," she said ahead of the event.

Her voice cracks and her eyes well with tears as she talks about her effort and patriotism in general. For her, it's personal — a way to both honor her father and keep his memory alive.

"My mother was my best friend," she said. "But my father was my hero."

Just like Large, survivor Bernard Comito, 89, of Dalton worries about the memories fading.

He once headed a Pearl Harbor Survivors Association chapter that numbered 40.

The chapter shut down last year because it was down to one member: Him.

There's no exposure to Pearl Harbor outside of media coverage around the anniversary each year, said Comito, a retired elementary school principal.

But he also isn't upset over that, knowing that it's inevitable that Pearl Harbor will one day fade into obscurity.

That comes naturally with the passing of time, said Kevin Kern, associate professor of history at the University of Akron.

He cited traumatic moments in American history such as the assassinations of President Lincoln and President McKinley.

"McKinley's assassination — which happened even more recently to a president who was arguably more popular at the time, and was similarly a cause for national mourning — is all but forgotten, especially the farther away you get from Canton," he said.

Memorial Day was a solemn occasion for Civil War veterans. And the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War aren't remembered.

Kern said he's been studying his students' knowledge about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and already has noticed their memories being somewhat limited.

"We can easily read about events in history books, but it is much harder to get the sense of how those events resonated at the time without eyewitnesses to tell us about them," he said.

Comito arrived in Hawaii on Dec. 4, 1941.

Only 17 years old and living in California at the time, he had needed his parents' permission to enlist in the Navy.

He was thrilled with his Hawaiian assignment, because he loved the water and looked forward to surfing.

His other passion was airplanes, so he was equally excited to be sent to the Naval Air Station in Kaneohe, which was home to three patrol squadrons.

The morning of Dec. 7, Comito and his friend John Halby had wandered into a coconut field because they had never seen coconuts before and they wanted to look at them up close.

That's when they heard an explosion in Kaneohe Bay, where many seaplanes were moored. And then another explosion.

Airplanes with red dots on them filled the sky.

In that initial moment, he was a frightened teenager as he watched the enemy strafe the seaplanes.

He still recalls wondering: "Why are they firing at us? If I fire back, will they be mad at me?"

That fear and hesitation quickly gave way to anger.

Comito and Halby grabbed 30-06 Springfield rifles and started shooting.

They survived the first wave. But realizing they needed more firepower, they grabbed a 30-caliber repeating rifle and fired away as a second wave bombed the buildings.

Their barracks were destroyed.

After the second wave, a rumor spread that an invasion was coming.

Comito and others made their way into a nearby cane field and waited all night for the land invasion that never came. He recalls being so hungry because he hadn't eaten since the morning of the attack.

His anger boiled even hotter when he returned to Pearl Harbor and saw the devastation there.

Just a few days earlier, he had marveled at the water.

"So clear. So pretty. The sun was shining. It was such a beautiful, beautiful blue," said Comito, an aviation metal smith. "The contrast when I went back. There was three or four inches of oil on that water just as far as you can see with this massive black, and ships burning."

He went on to serve on the USS Avocet, USS Wake Island and USS San Marcos until the war ended.

Comito then returned to the U.S., got his GED and went to college, eventually earning a master's degree in education administration.

He taught and served in administrative posts at schools for military children in Trinidad, Germany, Japan and Spain before taking a job as principal of Mt. Eaton Elementary School in 1980 because his wife Jackie's family is from the area.

Comito said his anger is long gone.

It faded noticeably during his time teaching in Japan in the 1960s, when he saw the destruction in Hiroshima and found the Japanese people to be courteous and friendly.

"I have nothing but admiration for the Japanese now," he said.