Al Matthews, at 90, is one of the last local survivors of a day of infamy. Despite persistent health problems, Matthews was set on attending Saturday’s Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremony in his hometown of Somers Point. His memories of that day are still clear.
“It was five minutes of eight in the chow hall and I was having a bowl of cereal,” he said from his apartment Friday. “The Japanese came over machine-gunning us, strafing us from the skies, and we were all dodging, trying to figure out what’s going on.”
Matthews and others from his Army unit knew soon enough.
The planes, he said, were flying so low he could see the large red zeros painted on their fuselages.
Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on American forces stationed on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. By the end of the day, 2,400 Americans were killed and the U.S. military bases there had been severely damaged. In a radio address the next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared it “a date which will live in infamy,” and the country entered World War II as a result.
But while the memories of survivors are intact, their numbers have rapidly dwindled.
Bob Frolow, Atlantic County’s veterans service director, said Matthews will be the only survivor in attendance at Somers Point’s 1 p.m. ceremony. Another vet from Hammonton had been in poor health the last time Frolow heard from him.
“It’s scary,” he said. “You could get to a point where the public thinks there’s no point in going because there’s no Pearl Harbor survivors there. I hope we can keep it going to commemorate the day, if nothing else.”
The same is true of World War II survivors in general, Frolow said. It can be just as difficult to find survivors of other landmark events, such as the Normandy landings of D-Day in 1944.
“It seems a lot of them are either too old or feeble and can’t get around,” said Frolow, a Vietnam War veteran. “We just buried two last Saturday.”
According to a May report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the most recent data available, there were about 1.7 million living veterans of the estimated 16.1 million men and women who served during World War II. They are dying at a rate of about 750 a day.
Those grim facts prompted Atlantic County to embark on a major expansion of its Veterans Cemetery in Estell Manor. Frolow said construction will pick up in earnest this spring. The expansion will eventually add 4,425 new graves to the existing 5,800.
Matthews said he’s proud of his service and takes his part in keeping the legacy of Pearl Harbor very seriously.
“I think about the outfit quite a bit,” he said. “We were all good soldiers together, and everybody pulled together.”
But he doesn’t worry himself about being the last person at the ceremony with firsthand recollections of the day.
“It doesn’t bother me one bit,” he said. “I’m one of the thousands.”
Pearl Harbor Day ceremonies today
Somers Point service
When: 1 p.m.
Where: Beach on Bay Avenue
More info: 609-487-6932
North Wildwood VFW service
Where: Seawall at St. Demetrios Church parking lot, 321 St. Demetrios Blvd., North Wildwood
More info: 609-729-5832
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
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