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Pearl Harbor attack survivors’ memories vivid
But their ranks are declining

Sunday, December 8, 2013

By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Even now, 72 years later, Herbert Gibbs can recall the sound and the sight of Japanese fighters overhead and into the distance, aiming to destroy American planes and ships — seemingly all but the one he was on.

“We could see the planes coming,” he said. “They flew right by our ship ... (then) we couldn’t see anything from the smoke.”

Gibbs was aboard the USS Vega, a supply ship headed for the Philippines that was stopping by Pearl Harbor “to pick up stuff” on Dec. 7, 1941. The ship was docked away from the American fleet at Pearl when the Japanese attacked at 7:55 a.m. local time.

Gibbs and his crewmates were helpless bystanders to the attack. “We shot at them, but the type of guns we carried probably didn’t reach them,” he said.

Gibbs, of Martinsville, went on to be assigned to a destroyer, the USS Moale, for the rest of the Pacific War, surviving several battles. Had the U.S. not dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, he added, he would have been part of a planned invasion of the Japanese mainland that was expected to cost millions of lives.

Stories like Gibbs’ — and those of many other World War II veterans — soon may be confined to the pages of textbooks and news articles as veterans of the war age and pass away.

According to David Kipfinger, VFW 5th District commander, about 1,500 or more World War II veterans die every day, and there are fewer than a million left worldwide. The National World War II museum’s website estimates that 1.9 billion people worldwide fought in the war, and it estimated that 60 million died.

Kipfinger said he has noticed a decline among World War II veteran members in the VFW posts in the region, though not all of that decline is due to deaths.

“Initially, it was gradual, but with age ... unless you stay in touch with them ... they’re kind of left at home,” he said. “Because of their age — 85, 90 years old ... the only people getting in touch with them are doctors, nurses and close family.”

Kipfinger estimated that “probably by 2020 or 2025, there probably won’t be any (World War II veterans) left, and the Korea and Vietnam era veterans will be next on the agenda.”

Glenwood Hankins of Martinsville joined the Virginia National Guard in February 1941, shipped out to England from Fort Meade, Md., after Pearl Harbor, and then took part in the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. He served in France, Belgium and Holland before returning home.

Once he got back to Martinsville, Hankins went to work for the Postal Service for 40 years, alongside some of his comrades in the guard and Company H of the 116th Infantry Regiment.

Like many veterans of the war, Hankins joined the local VFW, where he kept in touch with other veterans. However, he said, only one of his co-workers from Company H still is living, and “the veterans I served with ... there’s only two of us living.”

“The people my age,” said Hankins, 90, “there are not many of us around.”

Veterans groups such as the VFW, American Legion, Amvets and Marine Corps League are important, Hankins said, because they allow veterans to talk with others who have experienced the same things.

“It’s easier to talk to an ex-serviceman than a civilian,” he said. “Particularly, if we’d been in the same area, we have something to talk about. Generally, if you meet another veteran, you strike up a conversation.”

Hankins said he has gone to reunions of his infantry company over the years, and like the local group of veterans, the numbers have gradually dwindled.

“You’re aware of it,” he said. “The numbers are smaller each year. Some of the members you knew are no longer there.

“It’s a fact of life,” he said. “You just accept it.”

Gibbs, 94, who went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam during a 21-year Navy career, still attends local VFW meetings once a month. “It’s nice to be with a group like that; to see them once a month and have a meal with them,” he said.

However, “it worries me about losing members. It’s declined quite a bit ... it’s a unique group of people who went through World War II.”

S.T. Fulcher, commander of American Legion Post 42 in Martinsville, said losing veterans of the war is a concern because the living links to the greatest cataclysm in history cannot be replaced.

“Whenever you lose a World War II veteran, you lose part of your history,” he said. “Some of them don’t say a whole lot about what they did and what they saw, simply because they can’t explain it to us.”

Locally, Fulcher said, “the World War II vets have always been important. Now, we can count the World War II vets on two hands. It had to happen; still, it’s sad when you lose them.”

One difference between World War II-era veterans and those who served in other wars was the nationalistic pride that accompanied it, Fulcher said.

“You have to remember, World War I was ‘The War to End All Wars,’ and when World War II happened, that was The War. Everybody was involved in the war effort,” he said.

The pride associated with World War II was absent from the Korean and Vietnam wars until recent years, Fulcher said, because those veterans were treated differently.

Kipfinger agreed, saying that initially, other veterans looked at the more recent conflicts as “police actions” rather than proper wars.

“Over time, they came to look at it as (when) a bullet’s flying at you, it’s a war,” Kipfinger said.

Hankins said all veterans need to make an attempt to connect with others who have served, regardless of the era. That’s why veterans groups reach out to returning veterans, he said, adding that he and others from World War II admire and respect current veterans.

“These people in Afghanistan (and Iraq), they never really know who the enemy is,” he said. “Whether it’s friend or foe ... you don’t know whether you’ll get a handshake or a hand grenade. I’d hate to be in that situation.”

As for his era of history, Hankins doesn’t worry about how it will be perceived as those who lived it pass away.

“Enough has been written about it,” he said. “People can connect.”


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