Of the few still left, their hair has turned white, thin and wispy, their walk unsteady.
There isn’t much more time for their words, for the message that has guided them now for three-quarters of a century.
Earl Schaeffer Jr. uses a walker and tells people to speak up, to speak slowly.
Seventy-five years ago – on Dec. 7, 1941 – he was a 19-year-old private in the U.S. Army Air Corps, working the switchboard in the communications shack at Hickam Field near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
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He was working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift as a favor to a buddy who had a heavy date in Honolulu and who paid him $2.
Shortly before Schaeffer’s shift was about to end, he heard explosions and aircraft.
It would turn out to be the sounds of war – the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which would thrust the United States into World War II.
The attack was, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt would declare the next day, “a date which will live in infamy” and forever changed Wichita and Kansas, the nation and the world.
Schaeffer is 94 and now at an assisted-living unit in Hays. He is “doing all right,” said his son Gary.
“Why hadn’t we heard anything about the possibility of this attack?” Earl Schaeffer would write in his memoirs years later.
“I didn’t even know (they) were mad at us.”
For so many years, the survivors’ message has served as a reminder to all Americans: Never forget. Remember Pearl Harbor.
Some talked about their experiences. Some never did. Most tried to put the horrors of war behind them, concentrating instead on raising children and grandchildren who would never experience what they did.
They tried hard to make the younger generations understand. But age has caught up with them.
The national organization of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded five years ago at the 70th anniversary of the attack. At one time, the membership was close to 30,000 survivors. Some estimates put the number of current living Pearl Harbor survivors at as few as 300.
The national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded five years ago after the 70th anniversary of the attack. It had fewer than 3,000 members; at one time, the membership was close to 30,000 survivors.
The organization’s membership was based on those who had been at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu or 3 miles or closer offshore at the time of the attack. Some estimates put the current number of living Pearl Harbor survivors at as few as 300.
It is estimated Kansas has fewer than a dozen Pearl Harbor survivors still living, according to Jim Denison, who has organized this year’s observation ceremony taking place Wednesday at the Robert J. Dole Veterans Administration Medical Center auditorium on East Kellogg.
That number may be overly generous. The Wichita chapter of the survivors association disbanded in 2011 with only a few members left.
This year’s ceremony starts at 10:55 a.m. CST Wednesday, the moment Japanese forces attacked in Hawaii. No survivors are expected to attend Wednesday’s observation in Wichita, although several World War II veterans have been invited, as have family members of survivors.
Through the years, The Eagle has interviewed several veterans of the attack, many of whom have since died.
Another generation is coming in. I sometimes wonder if they know where Pearl Harbor is. When I was in boot camp and was told I was going to be going to Pearl Harbor, I said, ‘Where’s that?’ They said, ‘You’ll find out.’ I did, too.
Arthur Dunn, former president of the Wichita chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and Belle Plaine resident who died in 2015
“A lot of the World War II veterans have passed away,” Arthur Dunn, the former president of the Wichita chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and Belle Plaine resident, told The Eagle in 2012. “Another generation is coming in. I sometimes wonder if they know where Pearl Harbor is.”
Dunn died in 2015.
For 45 years after the attack, he couldn’t – wouldn’t – talk about that day.
Then, when he could talk about it, his wife, Marlene, helped him present programs to local groups. For years, he was the group’s most vocal and visible member, talking to countless schools, churches and business groups.
Marlene Dunn died in 2003.
“There was a time when I was kept busy talking about it, going to schools and talking,” Arthur Dunn told The Eagle in 2012.
The last time he talked to a class about Pearl Harbor, he said in that interview, no student asked a question.
“It didn’t seem like the kids were really interested,” he said.
As the survivors age, Pearl Harbor is beginning to recede into history.
Growing up, their children learned to recognize survivors by their garrison cap – a dark blue and white cap with yellow piping and lined in satin with “Pearl Harbor Survivors” embroidered on the left side.
“As a child, I knew he was at Pearl Harbor, but I didn’t know the significance. He didn’t talk about it,” Cheryl Baumgartner of Riverdale, near Wellington, said in November of her father, Arthur Dunn.
The Eagle interviewed Baumgartner on Nov. 27. She and her husband were killed last weekend in a traffic accident near Wellington. Her brother gave his permission for The Eagle to use her earlier remarks.
Baumgartner said it wasn’t until she was in her 20s and reading a book about Vietnam that her father began to talk about Pearl Harbor.
“I was reading about the Hanoi Hilton,” she said. “He said, ‘After you are done, I want you to read this book on the Bataan Death March.’ He wanted to educate me on World War II, and that’s when I found out the significance to Pearl Harbor.
“It drew me closer to him and touched me to know he was there and just 18 years old, on board the USS Oklahoma. I was a spoiled kid compared to what he was going through.”
Gary Schaeffer said he was honored to grow up a Pearl Harbor survivor’s son. Years ago, the Schaeffer family traveled to Hawaii so Earl Schaeffer could show his sons what had happened. Bullet holes still could be seen on some of the buildings.
“He was one lucky guy,” Gary Schaeffer said.
In less than two hours on Dec. 7, 1941, 2,402 Americans were killed and more than 1,000 wounded.
Almost immediately after the attack, Americans came together to enlist and to build planes, ships and military vehicles.
Cities such as Wichita were transformed almost overnight into major manufacturing centers.
In his office at Kansas State University, history professor Jim Sherow has a framed front page of the Dec. 8, 1941, edition of The Eagle. His aunt, Ida Plush of Wichita, saved the page and later had it laminated to give to him.
“People knew it (the attack) was huge,” Sherow said. “The defense industry in Kansas already at that point was huge. By the end of 1941, defense contracts in Kansas equaled 75 percent of the entire business done in the state in 1939.”
As the U.S. geared up for war, the number of employees at Wichita’s airplane plants grew. Defense contracts spread across Kansas in the construction of Navy and Army air bases – at Olathe, Hutchinson, Salina, Topeka, Pratt, Walker, Herington, Great Bend, Liberal, Independence, Coffeyville, Dodge City, Garden City and Winfield.
“Simply building the Dodge City Army Airfield cost $7.5 million, which was a lot of money then and brought in 4,000 people to that area,” Sherow said.
After the war, as veterans used the G.I. Bill to finance their education, college enrollment soared.
“The student enrollment for 1945 was 2,200 students; in 1946, it was 6,500,” Sherow said of K-State.
The war changed Kansas in other ways. Returning soldiers who qualified for education and housing loans were less likely to return to small towns and farms.
And Kansas repealed prohibition in 1948.
“These young men had no intention of being bound by prohibition,” Sherow said. “They had fought to make the world free, and that meant having a drink in Kansas.”
But it also meant never taking America’s freedoms lightly.
The day after the attack, Earl Schaeffer was firing a machine gun in a B-18.
Here I was, a 19-year-old kid from a farm … all trussed up in a very heavy, large flying suit, stuffed into the rear turret. I was scared. I tried to remember all the things we were taught in gunnery classes. Like: Short bursts, lead properly, etc.
From the memoirs of Pvt. Earl M. Schaeffer Jr., who was at Hickam Field during the bombing of Pearl Harbor
“Now, I must tell you something about the B-18. Built by Douglas, a two-engine, slow, not very attractive creation, protected by one each 30 cal. machine gun in the nose, turret and in front of the vertical stabilizer and in the belly,” Earl Schaeffer wrote in his memoir. “Here I was, a 19-year-old kid from a farm … all trussed up in a very heavy, large flying suit, stuffed into the rear turret. I was scared.”
As he flew over Pearl Harbor and saw the destruction, Schaeffer had time to think.
“It appeared that everything in the harbor was blown-up, burning or destroyed,” he wrote. “I had the feeling that the U.S. had-it. My stomach was full of butterflies.
“I thought of my slim chances of coming out of this flight alive should we run into some fighters.”
But Schaeffer and many of his comrades did survive and go on to fight in other battles, eventually returning home.
Some would never return – their bodies buried near battlefields or at sea or in small-town cemeteries across the nation.
For the survivors, they continue their legacy with growing urgency: Never forget. Remember Pearl Harbor.
Derby High band at Pearl Harbor
The Derby High School band will perform before dignitaries and veterans at the USS Missouri memorial during Wednesday’s ceremonies in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Nearly 90 students and 40 parents and school officials made the trip from Derby to Hawaii.
The Missouri, a battleship, was the site of Japan’s formal surrender in August 1945, which ended World War II. It was relocated to Pearl Harbor in 1998 and serves as a floating museum and memorial.