The Leon Law Firm, P.C., www.theleonlawfirm.com honors and remembers those who served on this fateful day and the days that followed.
Few Pearl Harbor survivors remain in N.J. on 70th anniversary of Japan's sneak attack
This morning, Ralph Jeffers will find himself at the Richard Stockton rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike for an annual ceremony honoring Pearl Harbor survivors in the state.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack on U.S. forces in Pearl Harbor. But Jeffers figures he'll be just one of three, maybe four, of his peers who can attend the ceremony. By his count, there are only 10 Pearl Harbor veterans still alive in the state.
"I have the lists," said Jeffers, who turns 92 on Friday. "And every so often I’m sent the death reports. You just put a line through the name. You know time is marching on."
Jeffers, a Navy aviation machinist aboard the USS Curtiss, was the longtime state chairman of the New Jersey Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. But since all three of its local chapters have disbanded, the Ocean Township resident has served as liaison to the national branch.
But on Dec. 31, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which was founded in 1958, will also dissolve. Bill Muehleib, national president of the organization, said the health of the remaining 2,700 members, most of whom are in their late 80s and early 90s, is the reason.
"It’s just a matter of their age and health," said Muehleib, 89, who estimates there are 8,000 remaining Pearl Harbor survivors. "We want these people to make the best use of the time they have left."
Jeffers, always jovial in his nature and spry enough to regularly sing with a local chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, says it’s a concern to him the date President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would live in infamy actually will not be remembered with the passage of generations.
"As the years go on, I’d sometimes say to myself, you know, I was fortunate to be part of that history," he said. "But it’s never been about me and for the other guys who were there, it was never about them. It’s about what that day meant to our country and it’s important for everyone to know."
Jeffers, like the 84,000 uniformed U.S. military personnel who were on Oahu that historic day, has his story to tell. And the years don’t distance the memory.
The Jersey City native was enjoying breakfast in the mess hall on what began as a serene Sunday morning. At about 7:55 a.m., Jeffers said, he and his shipmates aboard the USS Curtiss heard a loud explosion. Through a huge porthole on the starboard side of the 527-foot ship, he could see the USS Utah, a target ship moored off the northwest coast of Ford Island, turned over on its side, courtesy of a Japanese torpedo.
"We couldn’t believe what we were seeing," Jeffers recalled.
Immediately, Jeffers and crew rushed to their battle stations. He recalls climbing bunks to get to the hatches to get topside as most of the conventional ladders had lines of crewmen waiting to go up.
Once there, he saw scores of aircraft in the skies. The flaming red ball on the wings was an unknown quantity to Jeffers. Maybe it was some kind of crazy drill, he thought wishfully. But that notion didn’t last more than a split second.
"Once we saw the damage around us, we knew for sure we were under attack," he said.
For the first hour, the USS Curtiss was spared. But while the seaplane tender was much smaller than the easier-targeted battleships on the eastern side of Ford Island, she was a powder keg waiting to be lit. The ship was loaded with thousands of gallons of aviation fuel and an assortment of bombs, shells and torpedoes.
At 9:05 a.m., according to Navy records, the Curtiss tagged a Japanese plane on a suicide mission. The plane crashed into the ship’s No. 1 crane on the starboard side and disintegrated.
Seven minutes later, under heavy fire by a group of enemy planes, the Curtiss was hit directly on the starboard side of the boat deck. The 500-pound bomb passed through a carpenter shop, a radio repair shop and entered the hanger at the main deck level and detonated. Most of the 20 fatalities that occurred on the ship were a result of that bomb.
Jeffers considered himself lucky. He wasn’t near the bomb and escaped the intense fires. He and two other crewmen were firing under the protection of another crane that wasn’t hit.
"We normally had a crew of about 20 men at the gun stations," he said. "But some of them went to see their families ashore that Sunday morning. We kind of had a skeleton crew. I’m always grateful for that crane."
Jeffers also takes particular pride in that his ship was credited with taking down three of the only 29 Japanese aircraft that were lost on the day. After she was repaired, he continued on with the USS Curtiss, with battles at Guadalcanal and the Gilbert Islands. He left the ship in 1943 and retired from the Navy in 1960 as a chief aviation machinist.
Jeffers worked in quality assurance in Springfield and later Eatontown until retiring in 1980. The years would bring him his wife Claire, five children, 16 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
They also would bring him friendships of other New Jersey servicemen met through Pearl Harbor Survivors Association gatherings.
"These were people who may not have been anywhere near you on the day, but you had this bond because you were still there together," Jeffers said. "You’d never really even talk about it that much, but these great friendships would still happen."
There is a bridge in place to carry on the legacy of Pearl Harbor survivors when they are no longer able to do it themselves. The Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors has been in existence since 1973, but current president Louella Large said the organization is receiving greater attention as the number of survivors grows more finite.
"With the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association ending, it is actually up to us carry on the legacy of these servicemen and women and to teach the children of today about that terrible day in history," said Large, of Canton, Ohio. "There are many adults who don’t really realize everything that happened."
According to Large, there are about 4,000 members of the Sons and Daughters club spread over eight regional districts. The organization looks to have a chairperson in each state, to promote the cause. In New Jersey, she says, it is looking for someone to fill that role.
Large invites any relative of descendant of a Pearl Harbor survivors, or those who passed, to get information about the club at www.sdphs.org.
Jeffers, for one, said he is glad such an organization is around to carry the baton for his dwindling peers.
"They do a great job," he said. "And it’s important that they do."