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Even after they are gone, veterans of Pearl Harbor remembered

The Bakersfield Californian - 12/7/2019

Dec. 7--He was still a young man, stationed in tropical paradise and dozing on his U.S. Army-issued cot on a beautiful December morning when exploding bombs shook the ground beneath him.

The screaming whine of Japanese dive bombers, the fearsome thunder of enemy Zeros strafing scattering servicemen, pushed Yonkers, N.Y. native Hy Seiden to his feet and out of his tent at Fort Kamehameha, an Army base adjacent to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Breakfast would have to wait. It was Dec. 7, 1941, and the world was about to change forever.

"He found a jeep somewhere, drove to the armory and shot the lock off," said Stuart Seiden, son of Hy Seiden.

The experience colored much of Hy Seiden's life after the war, including in Bakersfield where he lived for many years. The elder Seiden died in 2011 at age 96, but not before he conducted the annual Pearl Harbor Day ceremony at Union Cemetery for more than 20 years.

The attack on Pearl "should be remembered so that the generations that are growing up now know that freedom is not free," he said at one of those events. "Freedom has a price that has to be paid, and many of the soldiers who protected that freedom paid the ultimate price."

Seiden once vowed he would attend the Pearl Harbor Day memorial each year "as long as I can stand up." And he was true to his word. Seiden only missed it once, when he was hospitalized with pneumonia and pancreatitis.

On Saturday, in his father's stead, the younger Seiden will attend the Pearl Harbor Day memorial ceremony at Union Cemetery.

"He had a strong commitment to it," Stuart Seiden said of his father. "So we try to attend every year in his memory."

'A DATE WHICH WILL LIVE IN INFAMY'

When the attack was over, more than 2,400 Americans lay dead and a large portion of the Pacific fleet was left damaged or destroyed.

On one battleship alone, the USS Arizona, 1,177 men perished when the hulking vessel capsized and sank in minutes. At nearby Hickam Field and other air bases, 347 aircraft were damaged or destroyed, most without ever leaving the tarmac.

Across the United States, millions of Americans were suddenly shaken from their support of an isolationist foreign policy, a legacy of the horror and perceived meaninglessness of the First World War. The attack on Pearl Harbor would inspire a national commitment to fight and win this second global war.

But today, on this 78th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the men and women who were profiled in the pages of The Californian over decades -- each an eyewitness to this cataclysmic shift -- are almost all gone.

SERVICE KNOWS NO RACE, NO COLOR

William Penn Gentry was just 17 when he joined the Navy in June 1941, six months before the surprise attack. As a black American in a segregated military, he was relegated mostly to kitchen and cleaning duties.

"We couldn't go as far in those days because those were racial times," Gentry recalled in 2006.

The teen sailor was stationed on the USS Tennessee the morning of the attack. He was on deck and saw the whole thing, he said, including the Arizona as it capsized.

At one point he was working with another man when Gentry spotted two sailors struggling in the water.

"I went looking for a lifeline to help them, but when I got back the men in the water were gone and so was the man on the deck," the former Ridgecrest resident remembered 13 years ago. "To this day, I don't know if they made it."

The air was filled with smoke and the harbor was littered by damaged ships and floating debris. Why he survived that day when so many others died is a question Gentry asked himself many times.

"I know God had my hand, to bring me as far as I've come today," he told this reporter those many years ago.

OLD SOLDIERS ... AND SAILORS

Thomas Giannetti was 85, living in Ridgecrest, and suffering from Alzheimer's disease when his wife, Minnie, talked with The Californian in 2006 about how the attack on Pearl Harbor affected her husband for many years of his life. He died the following year.

Giannetti was a U.S. Navy gunner's mate aboard the USS St. Louis, a light cruiser, when the attack on Pearl Harbor was launched. The ship's gun crews were able to shoot down three Japanese aircraft before it escaped the harbor for safer waters, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.

"It was a very difficult experience," Giannetti's wife told The Californian. "He had nightmares for years. Flashbacks."

Those who faced an overwhelming enemy attack at Pearl Harbor continue to be thought of as heroes by many Americans, even though most never thought of themselves in those terms. Even though most have passed into history.

They were there when the world was changed, and a sleeping giant was awakened.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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