‘Rude Awakening:’ Local Pearl Harbor vets reflect on tragic anniversary

Posted at 6:36 PM, Dec 07, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-07 18:55:23-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt described December 7th as a day that would live in infamy. 74 years later, those words continue to ring true.

For veterans across the country, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor brings mixed emotions: a desire to remember, an obligation to reflect, and a plea for others to look to the future.

“The sacrifices that were made, the lost lives, the commitment of the people, the heroic aspect of what was taking place is astounding,” said Bill Campbell, a Vietnam vet who organized a Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony today at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. “We have a responsibility to say thanks to them, and to make it known what they accomplished. It’s a legacy type of thing and it’s becoming even more important now.”

Even though it’s been well over seven decades, those who were there and lived can remember the attack as if it were yesterday. Each has their own story, and each hopes the lessons learned from the tragedy resound with younger generations.

“It sure brings back a lot of memories,” said veteran Herb Elfring, barely 20-years-old when the Japanese attacked the naval base in Hawaii.

Herb was station at an army base just down-shore from Pearl Harbor, and can vividly recall the moment the attack began.

“it certainly was a rude awakening you might say,” he recalled. “I could hear the bombings and the planes circling around Pearl Harbor. “The first plane that came over only missed me by about 15 feet with [its line of bullets.] And when I looked up and saw the airplane with the big red ball on the fuselage, I knew it was not ours.”

The focus nowadays for veterans like Herb and Bill has become education for the future just as much as it has always been about reflection on the past. Tragic as they may be, Bill says that without an understanding of events like Pearl Harbor, we lose a sense of our heritage.

“Something that was just so much a part of us is just slipping,” he said. “If you see a veteran, say thanks for your service. Even the ones now - buy them a cup of coffee, sit down for a minute and listen. Because otherwise it’s going to truly, literally be gone.”

2,403 Americans were killed in the attacks and 1,178 others were injured. The attacks on Pearl Harbor are often credited as being the factor leading to U.S. involvement in World War II.