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Article posted: 12/7/2013 8:00 AM

So few Pearl Harbor survivors left; 3 honored in Des Plaines

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Ed Block remembers the events of Dec. 7, 1941, vividly.

The Navy barber was only 23, sleeping in on Sunday morning aboard the USS Medusa, after a night out on the town.

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"I was in Honolulu drinking beer, just like every other sailor," said Block, now 95 and living in Countryside.

Just before 8 a.m., he was awakened by the Japanese attack.

"I looked out the porthole and I saw the airplanes dropping their bombs. I said to the other two men that were in there, 'It looks like a sham battle.' And then a second later, I said, 'Oh, God, no. It's a war.'"

The date that President Franklin Roosevelt said would live in infamy is hard to forget for Pearl Harbor survivors like Block.

But those numbers are dwindling -- some estimates suggest there are only about 1,000 left alive from the 84,000 who survived the attack.

In fact, the number is so low that an organization comprised of survivors, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, disbanded two years ago.

That's even more reason, veterans advocacy groups say, to commemorate and reflect on a day that became a defining moment in U.S. history.

It's the mission of Bob and Rick Miller, members of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors whose father, Clarence, was aboard the USS Ramsay when the attack occurred.

For the past two years, the two brothers have organized a Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremony at the Oakton Arms retirement center in Des Plaines.

The Millers previously participated in much larger commemoration ceremonies at Navy Pier, hosted by the city of Chicago, but the event was discontinued in 2010 due to a lack of funding.

The Millers decided to host a ceremony of their own. They partnered with Des Plaines VFW Post 2992 to bring it to the retirement center, where post members hold their meetings.

They estimate there are some 30 Pearl Harbor survivors still alive in northern Illinois. Three of them -- Block, Lyle Hancock and Joe Triolo -- attended Friday's ceremony, marked by a commemorative wreath presentation and 3-volley salute.

"My father was just a kid that day, just like these guys," Bob Miller said, pointing to the three survivors. "But at the end of the day, they weren't kids. They were battle-tested men."

Hancock, 90, who lives in Wheeling, said it doesn't take much to bring back Dec. 7, 1941.

He was shaving at the time the attack began.

"I saw them flying through the air," Hancock said. "I was standing by my bunk. One of my buddies was in the top bunk. (One) said, 'The (USS) Oklahoma -- it's turning over.'"

Within a short time, five of eight battleships at Pearl Harbor were sunk or sinking, with the rest damaged.

Hancock rushed to his post at the Navy yard's dispensary, an aid station where seamen came for medication for minor aches and pains. The building was less than a mile from his barracks, but he had to cross a seemingly endless open field to get there.

"I don't remember to this day how I got across that field," he said.

When he got there, the scene was "utter confusion."

"You couldn't contend with anything because you didn't know what you were contending with."

Triolo, 93, of Waukegan, was aboard the USS Tangier when the Japanese struck, but they left the Tangier alone.

He says it seemed like the Japanese knew everything about the American operations at Pearl.

"The church pennant was flying from the yard. The crew, instead of being on their guns, were at church or in their bunks. They knew that. They rehearsed it," said Triolo, who spent 21 years in the Navy.

Bob Miller said he remembers growing up and hearing similar stories from his father, who used to attend Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremonies with his sons until his death in 2000.

As the number of Pearl Harbor survivors declines each year, Miller is determined to have a ceremony to honor them, as well as the 2,341 servicemen who died that day, and those who have passed since -- like his dad -- for as long as he can.

"That's the reason for doing it. He was a survivor. That's our obligation," Miller said. "We can't let current and future generations forget."

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