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Pearl Harbor Memorial Day, December 7, Tough Memories For Those Who Never Forgot – Orange County Register


They loved those pointed white Pearl Harbor Survivor caps they wore whenever they went out in public. Their badge of honor. They didn’t need to say a word as they walked down the street or sat together in a restaurant for their monthly meeting.

“Thank you,” they heard again and again. Thanks.

People know that freedom is not free. Someone has to pay for this. These are the guys who made a huge down payment 81 years ago today, on a date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised would live in infamy – and it did. We have not forgotten and we hope never to.

As another president named Roosevelt said, “walk softly and carry a big stick.” These guys were carrying the stick.

Early in the morning of December 7, 1941, our nation was struck by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service at Pearl Harbor. Over 2,400 Americans were killed and much of our naval fleet and aircraft stationed thereon were sunk or badly damaged. We were caught completely off guard.

The enemy left Pearl Harbor for dead that morning. Big mistake. The survivors got up from the bridge and picked up this big stick. We were no longer walking slowly.

The next day we declared war on Japan and officially entered World War II. The rest is history. Freedom has won. Tyranny lost.

That’s why the American flag will fly at half mast until sunset today, Wednesday, December 7. This is why we remember Pearl Harbor every year. It’s too important to forget, just like those men.

Bill Aupperlee had the Irish gift of small talk. He could make an undertaker laugh, which he did at his own funeral. One by one, the last remaining handful of members of the local Pearl Harbor Survivors Association chapter stood up to tell their favorite Aupperlee story, which always ended in a laugh.

No one told the one the day after the attack when they cried. Bill was helping to retrieve the bodies of the dead, praying he wouldn’t see his own face among them – his twin brother, also on duty at Pearl.

“When we later found ourselves still alive, we hugged and shed a few tears, then got back to work,” he said. “My brother and I talked about everything in our lives, but we never talked about that moment again.”

George Keene was the last active member of the association. He died last year at age 98. His granddaughter, Lisa Lunny, sent me a heartfelt note letting me know he had passed away.

“He may have been ‘grandpa’ to us, but every time he put on his Pearl Harbor Survivor cap in public, he became an instant celebrity,” she wrote. “We joked with him that we couldn’t take him anywhere without drawing a crowd. He would just laugh and agree.

Instant fame. So true.

Joe Mariani served on the USS California, which was badly hit, losing 87 men. According to the military, Joe was one of them.

“My father received a telegraph saying I had died in the attack, but three weeks later he received another saying I was alive,” he said. Like Bill Aupperlee and his twin brother, Joe and his parents never talked about those three weeks.

“They couldn’t resolve and neither could I,” he said.

Ray Kuhlow could always be counted on to speak to school children on Memorial Day or Veterans Day, telling them stories that were becoming increasingly difficult to find in history books.

Some principals didn’t want veterans coming to talk to kids, like you could sweep Pearl Harbor under the rug. Ray pushed back. You cannot hide the war from children, he argued. It’s non-negotiable. He lost too many friends that morning in Pearl Harbor to remain silent.

And, there’s Leon Kolb, who nearly gave his life for love that horrible morning. As everyone desperately tried to get off the heavily damaged battleship USS Oklahoma, Leon struggled to get down to his locker.

He’d spent more than two months’ salary buying an engagement ring for his high school sweetheart back home, and he wasn’t about to let her go down with the ship.

You’re crazy, the guys in the hold told him. There was no time for love that morning. They pushed Leon back down the stairs before the ship’s store exploded below. He would have died in his locker.

“I lost the ring, but I got the girl,” joked Leon.

Pearl Harbor – 81 years later. A tribute to our instant celebrities.

Dennis McCarthy can be reached at


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