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‘I crossed my fingers’

December 7, 2018

As the nation remembers Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. entry into World War II, Floyd Welch has his own memories.

An electrician’s mate on the USS Maryland docked at the Hawaiian naval base on Dec. 7, 1941, Welch was coming out of the shower when he noticed some muffled noises. Then an alarm was sounded, and before long, he and his shipmates were at their battle stations. Then they were at war.

“Very few of us knew what was going on,” recalled Welch, an East Lyme resident who will turn 98 in February. He has indelible memories of that date, exactly 77 years ago, which transformed the lives of millions of Americans.

“When I stuck my head out of the focsle, there was a battleship on it side,” Welch recalled, describing the damage inflicted on the USS Oklahoma. His own ship was hit by two bombs, and the image of those shipmates killed on Dec. 7 have stayed with him for a lifetime.

Welch made it through the entire war on the Maryland, including close calls in naval battles off the Philippines and Okinawa. “I crossed my fingers — and made it,” said Welch, “And I’m proud of my service.”

Welch took part in an anniversary ceremony Thursday, at a dedication of the opening of the Pearl Harbor Memorial Park in New Haven.

Few survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor are still living, and the nation is far removed from the galvanizing impact it had on a nation unaccustomed to war.

“If I were to ask most of my students, what Pearl Harbor Day is, they could tell me factually, more or less what happened on Dec. 7, 1941,” said Matt Pavia, an author and educator. “But what I can say with reasonable certainty, is that I’m sure teenagers today can’t grasp what it that date meant to anyone who was alive then, what it was like to live through that day.”

The attack killed 2,403 and wounded 1,178, including 17 men from Connecticut. Stamford residents Vincent Horan, an aviation mechanic at Wheeler Field, and William Thomas O’Neill Jr., an ensign on the USS Arizona, were killed in the attack. Bridgeport lost two men in the raid: George Povesko was killed onboard the USS Arizona, and Felix Wegrzyn, serving in the Army Air Corps, who was killed at Hickam Field. George Smith of New Haven, an Army Air Corps private, also died at Hickam Field.

Pavia, a teacher at Darien High School who co-authored a new book on Stamford in the Vietnam era, said few Americans today of any age could understand the impact that Pearl Harbor had on a generation, and its aftermath. Total war is a concept foreign to the culture of 2018, he said.

“We live in a time when our armed forces are comprised of a microscopic percentage of the population,” Pavia said. “In the 1940s, when the Japanese attacked and war was declared the next day, virtually every person in America directly impacted. Young men were signing up, parents were sending kids overseas, brothers and sisters were saying good-bye, it was a war that affected everyone. That just doesn’t happen anymore.”

Contemporary culture, the author said, has little in common with American society in 1941. “We live in a materially comfortable society, where we’re used to having an abundance around us, of physical comfort and material possession. I don’t think any of us are any longer conditioned to the idea of communal sacrifice in the way the World War II generation was,” Pavia concluded.

The attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything in Connecticut, as it did for the rest of the country.

The fear of sabotage and follow-up attacks consumed law-enforcement all over the region. Guards were posted around the clock at the Cos Cob power station, which kept the trains running from New York to New Haven. Air-raid wardens were posted across Long Island Sound, ensuring total darkness in the nighttime hours. Japanese and German nationals were picked up and detained for questioning by local police officers and FBI agents. A sandwich shop called the Triple Decker, owned by a Japanese immigrant, Junzo “Junior” Nojima, was vandalized in Stamford — but a group of local citizens turned out to help him clean up the damage, and he remained in the city for years afterward.

The Navy recruiting station, a post office in South Norwalk, was mobbed with recruits, most of whom were turned away because they were too old for service. Gov. Robert Hurley shut down all private aviation in the state.

The attack at Pearl Harbor transformed the region in other ways, bolstering its status as an industrial powerhouse. Wartime industry ran full shifts turning out material by the bargeload.

Felt made in Greenwich lined army boots for cold-weather combat. Millions of rounds of .30-caliber rifle and machine gun bullets poured off the line at the Remington Arms Co. in Bridgeport. Corsair fighter planes roared overhead on test flights from the Chance Vought factory in Stratford. At the Luders boat-building factory in the South End of Stamford, a sign outside read “Remember Pearl Harbor.”

Those moments now only exist in history books or faded newspaper clips for all but a few men and women now in their 90s or above.

Jeff DeWitt, an Air Force veteran from Norwalk, said Dec. 7 was a turning point in history, one that should be remembered 77 years later.

“It was a day that defined a generation of Americans and changed the world. Service, sacrifice and valor were demonstrated by American heroes at unprecedented levels and foreshadowed the trials, toughness and grit that epitomized that Greatest Generation during the Second World War.”

DeWitt, who is active with the American Legion Post in Norwalk, took part in a recent Pearl Harbor commemoration this week, an obligation he felt a duty to carry out. “We have to tell the story of the generations before us so they’re not forgotten,” he said. “This is an important story — and possibly the most important.”

rmarchant@greenwichtime.com

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