They survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago today, but they are losing the battle with time.
Of the approximately 77,000 military personnel on Oahu the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, about 2,400 were killed during the attack. A handful of survivors got together in Gardenia, Calif., on Dec. 7, 1954, to remember their fallen comrades. Four years later they officially founded the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.
Mal Middlesworth, a national vice president of the organization, said over time the PHSA had about 20,000 applications for membership. Peak membership was 12,727 during the 50th anniversary year. The group's latest tally is about 2,700, and it is disbanding at the end of the year, passing the torch to the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors.
"We're too old," Middlesworth said and pointed out that most members are 90 and older. "We had to appoint three different national secretaries in about four months because of illness. As a (nonprofit) organization, we have fiduciary responsibilities and reporting responsibilities to the state of Missouri, where we are incorporated. We can no longer function."
The group doesn't get new members like other veterans groups. Middlesworth said his local California chapter has dwindled from 20 to three members in recent years. In Northwest Indiana, three of the five members died in the past year, and health is an issue for the other two.
A lot of the group's material has been turned over to the National Park Service in Hawaii for inclusion in the Pearl Harbor memorial. The state chapters of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors are collecting the rest as they prepare to carry on the memory of their parents' and grandparents' service.
Although the PHSA is disbanding, the Pacific Historic Parks organization, headquartered at Pearl Harbor, will continue to publish the group's newsletter, The Pearl Harbor Gram, which Middlesworth said still has a couple thousand subscribers.
Lou Large, SDPHS national president, said the organization, which was founded in 1970 and now has about 4,000 members across the country and overseas, has held its annual convention jointly with the PHSA, with the PHSA handling all the arrangements. If they hold a convention next year, it will be the SDPHS leading the way and including their elders.
"There are still some able to travel," Large said. "A lot of the survivors will be going to Hawaii this year for the 70th anniversary. The Greatest Generation organization is paying to take them. Each one will have a military person to accompany and help them because they are not paying for spouses or anyone. Some of the survivors will be speaking at a forum."
James Laud Sr., of Schererville, is the Indiana SDPHS chapter chairman and Northwest Indiana chapter president. His father, Walter Chwaliboga, was a radio man aboard the USS Sacramento when the attack occurred. Laud said the local chapter has 18 members. About six gather for the monthly meetings at Michael's restaurant in Highland, and they do an annual memorial service in Highland.
Education has been and will continue to be an important part of the role for both organizations. They speak at schools about their own memories of the attack or those of their parents. Middlesworth said some California schools have added oral histories to the curriculum that feature Pearl Harbor survivors and veterans of Korea, Vietnam and other wars.
"Our motto is: Dec. 7, 1941 - Lest We Forget," Large said. "Many of us speak at schools. We are doing everything they have done, but now we will be doing more. I just finished a letter to the president asking what the Department of Education has provided to make sure the survivors are remembered."
They survived Pearl Harbor. The SDPHS wants to be sure they survive history.