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They survived ‘Pearl’ but time takes its toll

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By Lee Helscel

It was once easier to remember Pearl Harbor Day because Dec. 7 was far enough from Christmas that the holiday hubbub had not begun. Like other traditions, it is customary to interview survivors of the “day of infamy” for the issue on or near that anniversary. But the commercial side of Christmas gets an earlier start each season and those survivors are much harder to find. It was 67 years ago and even a 17-year-old serviceman would be 84 by now – and they had to first live through World War II.

Those who are still among us do their duty and talk to us about their experiences at public gatherings and in newspaper interviews, even though some of them have told their tale so many times they are growing weary of it. Some enjoy relatively good health but it is also becoming more difficult for them to enjoy a celebration in their honor as they bear the weight of having lived four-score and more.

We have a few Pearl Harbor survivors living in the Corridor and we wrote about former Navy Capt. Don Dertien last year,  but the others are unknown to us. The first gentleman we wrote about, on the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack, Jimmy DeGeorge, died a few years after his story was told – and each December I always reflect on meeting him.

In 2001 the Corridor was still a cozy little hub noticeably outside the “city” and Jimmy was a fixture at VFW Post 4781, even though his appearances were becoming less frequent. After a visit with the post commander I was in touch with him and had directions to his home in Hills of Ocala.

Most of us think of that day in terms of ships and sailors because they were the primary targets of the attack and bore the brunt of it in death and destruction. But Pvt. DeGeorge was in the Army,  not the U.S. Navy.

During the Great Depression he forged his dad’s signature and signed up at age 19 because you had to be 21 in those days to enlist without parental consent, Jimmy related. So he was about 21 or 22 when the war found him stationed with the Hawaii Division and Schofield Barracks.

As well as being an infantryman, Pvt. DeGeorge was a welterweight boxer and the division champ at the time. That Saturday night he won his match in the third round and did a bit of celebrating in Honolulu. And yes, those rumors around the Post 4781 canteen contained a bit of truth – the single, young GI awoke in the company of ladies of the evening to the sounds of explosions early Sunday morning.

He managed to bum a ride with a sailor and got to Schofield before the first wave of Japanese planes finished their attack on Pearl Harbor and other targets which included Wheeler Airfield, adjacent to the Army base. Being caught completely off guard,  there was a lot of confusion but Jimmy and other soldiers broke into the barracks armory to gather 30-cal. machine guns and ammunition.

They hauled the weapons up to the roof and fired at Japanese fighters and dive bombers of the first and second waves that were passing overhead on their way to Wheeler. Later that morning, after the second wave passed, F Company was deployed to O’ahu beach to string barbed wire and take up defensive positions in case there was an invasion of Japanese troops.

To mobilize for the war in the Pacific,  the Hawaii Division was reorganized into the 24th and 25th divisions. Jimmy’s company and the 21st Brigade went with the 24th Division and he fought with them in the Pacific Theatre until Dutch New Guinea was taken in 1944, when Sgt. DeGeorge acquired enough rotation points to be reassigned stateside and the Army Air Corps until September 1945,  when he became a civilian again.

Like his comrades in arms – before Dec. 7, 1941 and after – Jimmy DeGeorge fought to keep America free. Yet, as the birthday of the Prince of Peace approaches, we find ourselves involved in war.

The ultimate tribute to the survivors of Pearl Harbor and the 2,402 who perished would be a Christmas without armed conflict or the threat of war. Our servicemen and -women have always done their part no matter how great the sacrifice. The elusive part is leadership which secures the peace they have always fought to gain.