Allan Darby was talking about some of the battles he fought after he survived Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
From the bed, where he spends most of his time, he talked about breaking his leg on the football field in October of that year.
That led into a story about watching the Japanese planes fly over Pearl Harbor and strafe the hospital where he was recovering. From there, he ended up in a foxhole on an island in the Pacific, the longest night of his life, he said. He trailed off, trying to place all of the memories in the correct order.
“Am I getting ahead of myself, Lee?”
“You’re doing great, Dad,” said Lee Darby, who had been listening quietly from the corner of the room.
On the 71st anniversary of the attacks today, with most Pearl Harbor survivors in their 90s — Darby, of Absecon, will turn 92 in January — relatives are especially aware of the value of these kinds of stories. Families maintain the legacy of Pearl Harbor veterans through stories, photographs, objects and letters from the war.
Lee Darby said some of her earliest memories are of her father speaking openly about the attacks and the ensuing war. Allan Darby calls her his secretary because she remembers details of his life so well. She knows his stories, and tells them proudly as if they were her own.
“It’s like being inside his head because I can pretty much tell the story verbatim. Sometimes I can tell it better than him,” she said, laughing.
And she isn’t the only one. Darby struggles to walk, so his son, Allan Darby Jr., represented him in a wreath-laying ceremony for Pearl Harbor survivors Sunday in Somers Point. Darby’s granddaughter, Jaime, wrote about the Pearl Harbor attacks for her college entrance essay. Darby’s great-granddaughter Madison, 13, recently wrote a report on the attacks for school. His other great-granddaughter, Lily, 4, walks up to anyone she sees in military uniform and says, “Thank you for your service.”
Lee Darby went to Hawaii with her father, mother and daughter in 1996.
“It was fascinating to see it through his eyes,” she said. “To be there and for him to show you, ‘This is Kolekole Pass where the planes came in.’”
Aside from preserving her father’s memories, Lee Darby fights to get disabled soldiers proper health coverage and works to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder. She also lives with and cares for her father.
Darby has attended many Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremonies. This year, he plans to stay at home.
“I’ll be in bed here, watching everything happen on TV,” he said.
Margaret Lopez remembers, as a child, playing with a wooden tent spike that her father, Stephen Acocella, whittled during the war. There was also the model airplane, welded together with shell casings.
Lopez knew that her father served in World War II and that he survived the Pearl Harbor attacks, but, until recently, he never spoke about the details.
“I kept it quiet and in my head. I never got them involved with what I went through,” he said. “I felt like I was bragging or something.”
Also, it was traumatic. To this day, Acocella, of Vineland, has nightmares about the attack.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “It’s constantly in my head. Never changed, after all these years. I can still see what I was doing that morning.”
He woke up and, still in his underwear, asked his friend why the Army and Navy were doing maneuvers. Then he saw smoke, heard explosions and realized it wasn’t the Army and Navy. Outside he could see the Japanese planes bombing ships. The planes were so close that he could see a Japanese pilot in the cockpit.
“I could see him laughing in the plane. He was only treetop high,” Acocella said. “I was so ticked off, we started throwing rocks and potatoes at him because we had no ammunition, guns, no bullets for our rifles.”
Details like that — the chucking of potatoes at the incoming planes — which might not be mentioned in the history books, are the ones that Lopez said helps her relate to the event.
“You laugh about it today, but at the time it had to be so frustrating when they didn’t have ammo and they’re throwing apples and whatever they have,” she said, laughing. “I mean, it sounds funny, but it’s actually upsetting. You can imagine how that felt.”
Acocella went four years without returning home. Lopez’s mother, whom Acocella married when he returned from war, wrote to him every day. He read about the deaths of two of his sisters in a 2-month-old newspaper. Lopez carefully notes striking details such as these.
Lopez and Acocella live in separate homes on the same property. She displays his awards and photographs prominently throughout, something the humble Acocella would not do on his own.
Acocella has grandchildren, and Lopez said they also proudly keep his first-person account alive.
“We’ve had relatives write up a story, and he wrote up a story,” Lopez said. “And I’ll ask him details like, ‘Where were you when that happened?’ or ‘What happened to you after that?’ We keep it alive like that. And we’re just so proud of him for what he’s done.”
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