For me, I’ll always remember the date “9-11” as the day of tragedy for my generation. But for many Americans older than me, December 7, 1941 is the day that they will never forget.
One of my dad’s uncles, Ralph Jeffers, served in the US Navy in the Pacific Fleet right at the start of World War II. He served on the USS Curtiss, a seaplane tender that was stationed at Pearl Harbor.
On that fateful day, the Curtiss sat in the water near Pearl City, directly across from Ford Island, where all the battleships were gathered. “Jeff” was eating breakfast in the mess hall of the Curtiss like any other day when all hell broke loose outside.
The general alarm sounded. All hands made deck within seconds and grabbed the nearest weapon they could find. “Jeff” manned a 50mm gun along with several others while Japanese planes flew overhead, dropping every piece of ammunition that they had to clear a path for the next wave of attacks on the battleships that surrounded Ford Island, as well as the barracks and air fields at nearby Hickam Air Force Base.
“Jeff” and his fellow seamen fought off the enemy as best they could, but they came too quickly. At one point, “Jeff” turned towards Ford Island and watched as the USS Utah capsized. 58 lives were lost when that battleship turned over.
As the battle raged on, a radio antenna tower fell on “Jeff”, preventing him from getting back to his station. In hindsight, it probably saved his life. All told, the USS Curtiss suffered heavy damage and lost 19 sailors.
Seventy-one years later, many of the survivors of Pearl Harbor are gone. “Jeff” was a member of the New Jersey chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, serving as president for a while. Up until recently, the NJ chapter was very active, but as time marched on, so many survivors had passed on that the chapter was ended.
Every year on December 7, I can count on the Asbury Park Press to write an article about that infamous day, and my great uncle, Ralph Jeffers, providing some commentary about what happened that day for them.
When “Jeff” started dating and eventually marrying my great aunt, I can recall that he was kind of hesitant to talk about those days in the Navy. But as time wore on, he began opening up. Both of my kids even interviewed him for papers that they wrote for school. I get the impression that he didn’t think of himself as a war hero -- just as a sailor who signed up for a job and did what he was told to do for his country. I think most veterans from that generation felt the same way about their service, too.
“Jeff” is 93-years-old and lives the peaceful life with my great Aunt Claire. They like to travel and enjoy their stays in Florida over the winter. He can probably still kick my behind in racquetball, too.
We live in a day and age where kids tend to pick their childhood heroes from the sporting or music worlds, who sometime disappoint us all in the end with their antics. It’s nice to know that in some cases, one only has to look to their family to find a real live hero among their midst.
(You can also follow Kevin Cieri's blog on his Facebook page, "Jersey Shore Retro" as well as on Twitter @jsretro).