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Article updated: 12/7/2012 6:09 AM

Pearl Harbor survivor worries kids aren't taught about infamous day

By Russell Lissau

Pearl Harbor survivor Joe Triolo has vivid memories of the Japanese sneak attack that occurred 71 years ago today.

He remembers reaching the deck of his ship, the U.S.S. Tangier, and seeing Japanese fighter planes that were so close he could make out the expressions on the pilots' faces.

But the 92-year-old Waukegan resident regrets that many people these days, particularly schoolchildren, know little about the horrible event that launched the U.S. into World War II.

As the number of Pearl Harbor survivors dwindles, public memorial ceremonies are becoming rarer. So are the classroom visits veterans like Triolo once regularly made, visits that helped teach kids about an important chapter in American history.

"We don't (do) that anymore," Triolo said. "We're not even asked anymore."

About 40 Pearl Harbor survivors remain in northern Illinois, said Mundelein resident Rick Miller, the son of a now-deceased Pearl Harbor survivor and a leader of a local survivor group.

Nationally, the number of survivors is so low, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded last year. Estimates vary, ranging a year ago from less than 2,000 to more than 7,000.

The numbers reflect the decreasing population of what's been termed the Greatest Generation. Of the 16 million Americans who served in uniform during World War II, fewer than 1.5 million remain, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

To honor the soldiers and sailors who lost their lives on Dec. 7, 1941, a ceremony for World War II veterans and their descendants is planned for 11 a.m. today at Oakton Place, 1660 Oakton Place, Des Plaines.

Capt. Randy Lynch, the Great Lakes Naval Station's commanding officer, will address the crowd. Triolo and other survivors are expected to attend.

More than 2,300 troops and civilians died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some 360 Japanese planes sunk five warships, damaged nine others and destroyed 180 aircraft.

One day later, Congress declared war on Japan.

Triolo was 21 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. His ship was a seaplane tender and wasn't targeted by the Japanese.

"They wanted the battleships, and that's what they got," he recalled.

Triolo and his shipmates were lucky in that regard. The Tangier was loaded with bombs, torpedoes and ammunition, he said.

"If we'd have gotten a bomb, we never would have stopped exploding," he said.

Decades after his own service ended, Triolo remains a strong proponent of military readiness.

"If we want peace in this country, and if we want to keep the peace, we need to maintain our armed forces," he said. "They are a deterrent to war."

That, Triolo said, is the lesson of Pearl Harbor.

As for teaching the actual history of the day that shall live in infamy, Triolo said that responsibility lies with teachers.

"I'm not sure it's being taught in school," Triolo said. "If the kids come through school and never hear of it, it's gone. That's the key."

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