Valley veterans recall attack on Pearl Harbor
Sixty-two years ago today, Alex Nyiri of Winfield was eating breakfast at Schofield Barracks on Pearl Harbor when his life — and that of the nation — changed forever.
“We heard, ‘Boom! Boom! Boom!'” Nyiri said. “There was an island nearby that the Air Force used to practice bombing. But we were confused, because they didn’t bomb on Sunday.”
Moments later, a bullet whizzed through the window of the mess hall and knocked the butter dish from the 19-year-old Army sergeant’s hand.
“We never finished our breakfast that day,” Nyiri said.
That day was Dec. 7, 1941, and the surprise Japanese attack that launched the United States into World War II had begun.
As a squad leader in the 24th Infantry Division, Nyiri spent the rest of the morning with his platoon firing anti-aircraft machine guns and rifles at the Zero fighter planes that circled overhead.
But despite the efforts of Nyiri and his fellow soldiers to stave off the attack, 2,403 Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor, which was the home base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Nyiri now is 82 and lives in the Fair Winds Manor nursing home, where he helps care for his wife of almost 58 years, Edith, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
He is unsure whether he will be able to find a ride to one of several memorial services being held today to commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the Pearl Harbor tragedy. But regardless, thoughts of the Japanese attacks won’t be far off for Nyiri.
“It is something that never should have happened,” Nyiri said, crying. “I lived through it, so I know.”
Nelson Ferguson, 82, of Plum was staying at a boarding house in Honolulu for the week to do some Christmas shopping when the Japanese attacked.
“We heard all these sirens,” said Ferguson, who also was a member of the Army’s 24th Infantry Division. “Then a shell whistled by the building, and we got out. We went out to see what was going on, and the MPs sent us back to the Schofield barracks right away.”
Ferguson said he attended a Pearl Harbor memorial service this week at a retirement community in Bridgeville.
“It gets to me sometime,” he said. “Especially when I think about the graveyard they set up with wooden boxes all around the cemetery piled five high. All those American bodies and just one dead Japanese.”
Harry Karp, 81, a retired jeweler from New Kensington, also vividly remembers the Japanese attack.
Like Nyiri, the 19-year-old officer in the 324th Army Signal Corps was eating breakfast at about 8 a.m. when he heard planes fly over the wooden barracks at Hickam Field.
“You could see the red balls,” referring to the insignia representing the sun that was emblazoned on the wings of the Japanese fighter planes. “But we didn’t know what it was.”
Karp sought cover in a nearby concrete operations building with several other soldiers until it seemed safe to move about outside.
“It was a terrible holocaust,” Karp said. “A friend of mine who has since passed away once told me, ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, Harry, but I wouldn’t want to see it again.’ And I agreed.”
Despite being largely homebound, Karp plans to attend a memorial service this morning at the Brackenridge American Legion. He lamented that with each passing year, fewer and fewer of his fellow Pearl Harbor veterans still are alive and well enough to attend ceremonies.
Nationally, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 1,600 per day, Karp said.
Karp also expressed regret over the loss of American life in Iraq, where 443 U.S. soldiers have been killed since the war began in March. He said it brings back haunting memories of the loss of life he witnessed during World War II.
“Every time I see more and more American troops that are getting killed by these terrorists, I get sick to my stomach,” Karp said. “I just feel so sorry for the families that have to bring back their dead and bury them. They’re all so young.”
Nyiri and Ferguson agreed.
“It’s terrible,” Nyiri said. “I am very much against this war. A bunch of innocent people are getting killed.”
“That war has been going on for years,” Ferguson said. “We should bring our kids back home and let them do what they want over there.”
Pearl Harbor survivors
The remaining members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Keystone Chapter who live in the Alle-Kiski Valley include: