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  • RANDALL BENTON / rbenton@sacbee.com

    Joe Ojeda Sr., with his wife Erna in their Roseville home, describes his service in Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima during World War II.

  • TERRIE KANOTZ / Special to The Bee

    Pearl Harbor survivor Bob Addobati of Folsom stands in front of the USS Arizona memorial with his grandchildren in a visit to Pearl Harbor last year.

As the nation marks Dec. 7, Sacramento's WWII vets look back

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 - 8:11 am

Nightmares kept Joe Ojeda Sr. up in the darkest hours of the night for almost 60 years. He wandered his Roseville house, peering out at the empty street, temporarily lost in the past. In his mind, he was pinned down with his fellow Marines on the black beaches of Iwo Jima, waiting to die.

He told no one; not his wife, Erna, whom he married in 1949; not their five children.

His memories of some of the most vicious battles in World War II were the burden he carried for serving his country, the stories that he spared his family, until the day in the late 1990s that a Veterans Affairs counselor in Auburn asked him where he had served.

"Joe broke down and was crying, and he started talking," said Erna Ojeda, 83.

And in talking – in finally sharing what he had seen as a 17-year-old kid so eager to be part of the war that he had his mother sign a waiver for him to join early – Ojeda, now 85, discovered that his family is immensely proud of him.

On the crystal clear morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor launched a shocked nation into World War II. Seventy years later, many aging and long silent veterans of that war feel an increased urgency to tell their families how they went to war and how they survived to come home and carry on with the business of living.

Despite a generational reluctance to seem less than humble, each is a living witness to a piece of history that changed the nation and the world.

Left untold, their stories die with them.

They're vanishing from our midst, dying off at a rate of more than 800 veterans a day across the country – six a day in the Sacramento region alone during the past decade, according to U.S. census figures.

Of the 16 million men and women who served in World War II, fewer than 1.6 million are alive today.

"These veterans are remarkable in the way they conducted their lives and viewed their service," said Bob Patrick, director of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, which in the past 11 years has amassed the oral histories of almost 50,000 World War II veterans.

"The one thing you hear from them again and again is 'I didn't do anything special.' For some, what they saw was too hard to talk about it. And some don't want to sound like they're bragging."

And some simply came home and built lives for their wives and children, too busy to dwell on what they saw when they were young and the world was at war.

"When these young men returned from fighting, they'd seen enough death, and they wanted to experience life," said Keith Huxen, senior history director at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

"That generation gave birth to the baby boom, because they wanted to surround themselves with life."

Historians caution that when stories are left untold, the unpleasant complexities and deepest lessons of the period – the Holocaust in Europe, the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, the casual prejudice of the wartime military and the virulent racism on both sides of the Pacific war – can be forgotten, as well.

The truth is, returning veterans didn't necessarily want to forget. But they didn't necessarily want to remember, either.

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Billye Skarles is 85 now, a retired printer living in east Sacramento with his wife of 64 years, Delina. She doesn't know many of his war stories, because he never talked about the war.

Other people were the heroes, Skarles said – not him, despite marching across Germany in the last year of the war; despite being wounded so severely in April 1945 that he was sent home. Despite winning the Bronze Star for his service.

"A lot of people have done a lot more important things than I did," said Skarles. "It's nice to have the recognition, but it's not something you sit down and talk about normally."

"I saw enough to say I was there, but it was nothing like the Battle of the Bulge," he said. "You can live with it, or you can erase it. Basically, I think I've erased most of it."

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Fleeing Dust Bowl-parched farms and gritty factory towns slammed by the Great Depression, the young people who joined the military in the late 1930s and early 1940s thought they had found stability.

In the chaos and violence of Pearl Harbor, they witnessed the beginning of the war.

"Pearl Harbor veterans carry a special part of our history," said Patrick. "They saw what the country was facing hours before the first reports came over the radio. They knew we were going to war."

In many ways, theirs are the stories that are the most crucial to record now. While the youngest World War II veterans are in their mid-80s, the youngest surviving veterans from Pearl Harbor are already 88.

Membership in their national organization, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, has dwindled from a high of 29,000 in 1958 to fewer than 2,500 today. It disbands at the end of the year, although local chapters, including Sacramento's, will continue to meet.

Of the Sacramento group's one-time membership of 168 Pearl Harbor veterans, only some 20 survive, said President Sam Clower Sr., 92. Five have died this year.

Folsom resident Bob Addobati, 89, survived the attacks as a 19-year-old sailor.

"Now he's a survivor out of the survivors," said his daughter, Terrie Kanotz, who with her children and other family members accompanied her father to Pearl Harbor last Dec. 7.

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"We did what we had to do," said Bill Muehleib, the 89-year-old Virginia man who is national president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. "We did what we were called to do. And then we went on and lived our lives. It was over and done."

He was in the Army Air Corps stationed at Hickam Field, adjacent to Pearl Harbor: a 19-year-old in the midst of an airfield strafed by bullets and lit up by bombs, with the burning oil turning the sky black and blotting out the sun.

He talks to his fellow veterans, reporters and historians about his experiences. But even now, Muehleib said, he doesn't tell his children.

"I never talked with my family about serving at Pearl Harbor," he said. "Never showed them pictures I took that day. Never was important to me to do that.

"There was a bonding experience among people who experienced it. My kids didn't experience it."

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Historians would respectfully disagree with that thought. So would many family members.

"It's of vital importance that we collect as many of these World War II stories as we can," said Eric Rauchway, a UC Davis history professor. "World War II for the United States was overwhelmingly a citizens' war. It was not a professional military."

Almost every man of military age served, in other words, and everybody else sacrificed.

"The war was tied up with a real sense of national purpose," Rauchway said. "Whether they were fighting for their buddies in uniform, which many veterans say, or whether they were fighting to get home safely, which many say, that's important."

For families, World War II veterans' stories are a gift, a personal chapter about the sheer luck of survival that made possible the generations to come.

Deborah Bain lost that link.

Her father, John Burton Bain, a Navy fighter pilot who served in the South Pacific, died in 2000 at age 82. When she was growing up, he wanted to spare his children the worst of his memories.

But in the waning days of his life, reflecting on his service, he worked on a family scrapbook that included wartime memories. It was destroyed in the wildfires that swept through Southern California in 2007, killing Deborah Bain's brother.

"I understand what it is to lose it all," said Bain, 56, a deputy state attorney general and member of Citrus Heights' history and arts council.

"But if people don't capture their memories, how will we describe it to future generations? I don't want anybody to think their story's not important."

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Retired Carmichael minister Leonard Kovar has told his story through the decades – first, to his mother, who wrote down his memories in the 1940s; then to his congregation and family. Talking about the events, he said, helps him heal.

Now 89, Kovar was an Army Air Corps bombardier navigator whose B-24 was shot down over Vienna on Aug. 22, 1944. His prisoner of war camp was liberated just before war's end.

"It was a beautiful day," he said. "Everything got quiet. You could hear heavy engines. Tanks were nearby. There was small arms fire, and I remember thinking, 'Patton is here.'

"Then there was this eerie silence. I saw the Nazi flag being drawn down below the camp administration building, and a minute later the American flag was drawn up.

"I stood there filthy dirty and hungry and scrawny and saluting my flag. It was one of the proudest moments of my life."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Anita Creamer



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