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Reporter’s Notebook:

Survivors not forgotten

December 05, 2007|By Michael Alexander

When the bombs started falling Dec. 7, 1941, all the scrawny little guy from Iowa knew was that instead of being at breakfast he was suddenly at war. A Marine radar operator for all of six months who had never left his home state before that year, he wouldn’t be your first pick for a hero.

But like everyone around him, Bob Wilkinson pulled out his bolt-action Springfield rifle, climbed onto the roof and started shooting into the sky. He was my grandfather, and he had more guts in that moment than anyone I can imagine.

No, he didn’t take down one of the Japanese planes out to cripple the Pacific Fleet. Neither did anyone standing next to him. But he had to do something against the disaster.

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Later, things got grimmer as he went down to the docks to help with the carnage, where he told my uncle he saw “bodies stacked up like cordwood.”

I’m writing this because time is tough on national memory, and the country has moved on from a 66-year-old act of war. News outlets reported last year that the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn. was having its very last national meeting. Why? Like the man I remember as Grandpa Bob, most who survived that day are no longer with us. When he died more than 10 years ago, other survivors came to his wake dressed in their Hawaiian shirt uniforms to pay their respects, but one day none will be left to do so.

In a very real way, the firsthand memories of a defining national moment are disappearing. It will happen one day to the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, and one day, even 9/11 — a day that drew its own comparisons to Pearl Harbor, but highlighted just how long ago it really was. But something like that Sunday-morning air raid, whose survivors were always a special few to begin with, shows us how all too quickly a memory fades into the history books.

That’s why it’s important to pass on the stories we have. Every time we do so, we show how the past was something full of living people, and that these decisive moments changed real lives.

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