One last salute to San Fernando Valley’s Pearl Harbor survivors on Memorial Day

California

The Burbank fire captain stood in the shade under an old elm tree watching members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association arrive at the cemetery to say goodbye to another one of their own, Bill Aupperlee.

It was a few days before Memorial Day 2008, not even halfway through the year, and it was already their sixth funeral.

“I’m watching all my buddies pass away,” said 86-year-old Art Herriford to the fire captain. “We’re averaging about two a month. It gets kind of lonesome.”

Kind of lonesome. When you’ve spent some of the proudest years of your life with the men you’re now burying — when you’re watching your wife console another widow, wondering when someone will be consoling her — yes, it gets kind of lonesome losing old friends.

“A lot of people look at these guys and see old men,” said the fire captain, Bob Sheffield. “But they weren’t always old.

“We were on a call last week. An old man had fallen in his home and his wife couldn’t get him up by herself. We go on a lot of these calls and to the younger guys its just another old guy needing help.”

This one was different. As his men helped lift the apologetic, embarrassed old man off the floor and put him into bed, Sheffield noticed something on a side table that sent a chill down his spine.

“Hey, guys, take a look at this,” he said. In a display case were the man’s World War II combat medals, and a picture of a squad of battle-weary Marines celebrating a victory after a day of intense, brutal fighting.

“Within a week, most of them were dead,” the old man’s wife said, pointing out her husband in the picture. “All these years and he still feels guilty he made it home when most of them didn’t.”

The younger guys in his crew were quiet as they returned to the station house that night, Sheffield said. They had some thinking to do. This man who had fallen was so much more than just an old guy needing their help.

That young man in the picture had helped pick up his country when it needed him to protect it. No, it wasn’t a job picking him up that night, they realized. It was an honor.

I’ve never hung out with rock stars, movie idols or sports greats in my career, but I’ve hung out with plenty of old combat vets. I’ve witnessed the adulation they get.

I’ve seen those old Pearl Harbor guys bring a crowded restaurant to a quiet hush as they walked in with their wives, oh so slowly, with their canes and walkers — proudly wearing their Pearl Harbor Survivor caps.

I’ve seen grown men with tears in their eyes approach them deferentially just to let them know how appreciated they were, and not to worry about the check. He had it.

I’ve seen little kids ask for their autographs at Memorial Day parades, and mother’s reach out to grasp their hands, not wanting to let go — as if they were shaking hands with someone who had saved their lives.

I’ve seen them teach high school students about a chapter in the life of this country that too many history books give a passing mention. How, the vets wondered, would these kids ever get a better picture of the truth than hearing it from the men who were actually there doing the fighting?

There are no funerals left for the San Fernando Valley Chapter 12 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. They’re all gone now.

And I’m sitting here a few days before another Memorial Day thinking Art Herriford was right. It does get kind of lonesome without them.

Dennis McCarthy’ column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at dmccarthynews@gmail.com.

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