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Pearl Harbor survivors recall Day of Infamy at luncheon

Pearl Harbor survivors Joe Triolo (left) John Terrell are mobbed by guests end 43rd annual Pearl Harbor Day Memorial Lunchesponsored

Pearl Harbor survivors Joe Triolo (left) and John Terrell are mobbed by guests at the end of the 43rd annual Pearl Harbor Day Memorial Luncheon sponsored by the Aurora Council Navy League Monday, December 10, 2012. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 12, 2013 6:02AM

James O’Flaherty was in Pearl Harbor for less than 20 days.

On Dec. 1, 1941, he was one of 1,000 Marines who arrived at the naval base. The Elgin native couldn’t believe his luck: less than six months after enlisting, he had been stationed on a tropical island. Life was pretty good.

On Dec. 2, 1941, he turned 18 years old. After graduating from Elgin High School, O’Flaherty couldn’t find work. He told his father — a World War I veteran —that he wanted to enlist. Because of his age, O’Flaherty needed his father’s signature to join. When he got to Hawaii, he was assigned to help build the new permanent barracks.

On Dec. 6, 1941, O’Flaherty had a weekend pass. He had no money, so he spent the night sleeping on Waikiki Beach, underneath a canoe.

O’Flaherty awoke early on The Day of Infamy. He wandered over to a restaurant and just before 8 a.m., he heard explosions in the distance.

“I thought: ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’” he said.

One of the shells exploded overhead, rattling the restaurant’s dishes. Then, O’Flaherty knew they were under attack. He ran outside and jumped in a cab that was bringing soldiers back to base. When they arrived, they couldn’t get in: cars in all four lanes of traffic were headed out. O’Flaherty jumped out of the cab and ran through a sugar cane field. When he arrived at his base, he was sent to the shore, to man a machine gun.

Planes were still coming in. It had been less than an hour since he was in the restaurant, about to order breakfast. Now, he was pouring water on a machine gun so it would be cool enough to fire round after round. As O’Flaherty poured, another man fired at the planes that soared in. Spent shell casings rained down on them. From where he was standing, O’Flaherty could see the USS Arizona on fire, where 1,177 men were killed, including East Aurora High School graduate Eugene Fitzsimmons.

“It was pretty hard to see it and know your fellow soldiers are dying out there,” O’Flaherty said.

O’Flaherty and the other man — O’Flaherty forgot his name and they never met again — dug a latrine in the bushes. At 7 p.m., someone brought sandwiches and warned them: the Japanese may attempt a land invasion. Be alert. They stayed at that station for three days.

“Everybody was scared, I guarantee you that,” he said. “But you do what you’re trained to do.”

O’Flaherty knew immediately it was a day that would change the world. He knew we were at war. He spent nearly six years serving his country.

On Dec. 10, 2012, the Geneva resident could still see the images, still paused to catch his emotions as he retold the story he’s shared many times. But Monday at the annual Pearl Harbor Day Luncheon sponsored by the Navy League Aurora Council and the Rotary Club of Aurora, the 89-year-old retired engineer gladly told it again.

“I think it’s important we do re-tell it because it’s part of history now,” he said.

O’Flaherty was joined Monday at the luncheon at the Gaslite Manor in Aurora by four other Pearl Harbor survivors: Jack Loane, Everitt Schlegel, John Terrell and Joe Triolo. Since last year, three local survivors have died: Auroran Milt Card, North Aurora resident George Hettinger and Clarence Wills of Chicago.

On Monday afternoon, the remaining men posed for pictures, shook hands and even signed a few autographs.

“They are living legends — men who did extraordinary things so we could live ordinary lives,” said guest speaker Cmdr. Mike Thibodeau, executive officer at the Great Lakes Naval Station.

There were about 60,000 soldiers stationed at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. More than 2,400 died on Dec. 7. For the less than 3,000 who still are alive, the day changed them in ways that are difficult to describe.

“It’s hard to explain,” O’Flaherty said, pausing. “I grew up in a hurry.”

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