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Pearl Harbor memories remain fresh for Valley veterans

| Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2010

Dec. 7, 1941, is a date that will live in infamy.

Pearl Harbor survivor Steven Jager, 90, of Arnold, wants to make sure it stays that way.

Of 60,000 military personnel on the Hawaiian island during the attack, about 3,000 still participate in chapters of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association nationwide.

Five survivors live in the Alle-Kiski Valley. Two other local survivors died in August.

Only about 100 survivors are expected to make the trip to Honolulu for the national association's convention. The organization is considering whether to continue or to disband and turn everything over to the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors, Inc.

"What's happening because of age and health conditions, it's hardly practical for people to travel," Jager said.

But Jager will attend a ceremony this morning at the American Legion in Brackenridge.

And for as long as he possibly can, he'll tell the story of that fateful Sunday morning.

"We were all asleep, and a sudden bombing occurred and shook the building and woke everybody up," Jager said. "(It) took quite a few minutes to realize we were being attacked."

It was only about 200 yards from where Jager was situated. At that time, he'd been in the service for only 18 months.

"I turned to my buddy who had been in the service for 18 years," Jager said. "He said they're just having maneuvers. ... I turned to him, 'Toby,' I says, 'You're full of you-know-what. Look at this, the building is shaking.'

"Even then we didn't know we were being bombed."

The attack sank five battleships, destroyed hundreds of combat planes, killed more than 2,400 Americans and propelled the nation into World War II.

They realized it was a Japanese bombing, and as soon as possible, he began helping install communication systems. There wasn't time to be scared.

Jager spent 5 1/2 years in the service.

For a while, he didn't feel qualified to speak publicly about Pearl Harbor.

But a schoolteacher contacted him about 20 years ago and he didn't want to turn it down, so he asked if he could write down his story.

He did, and over time, he developed more courage.

Now, Jager goes to schools, memorials and programs to tell the story of that day.

"I've been trying to educate as much as I possibly could as to what happened 69 years ago," Jager said. "... I try my darnedest, and as long as my health will permit me to do so, I will speak out."

Sometimes, a child he spoke to in class will come up to him in the grocery store and call him by name.

He realizes that some of the things he said have stuck with them.

"I'm hoping and praying that those people that died that day will never be forgotten."

Jager has attended local Pearl Harbor Day ceremonies for many years.

"I've been very conscientiously attending that because my heart's with the people that died that day," Jager said.

Joe Jezik, 95, of Natrona Heights, also will attend.

"I could recall that just like it happened this morning," Jezik said. "I was just sitting on my bunk reading the Sunday paper when I could hear the explosions in the distance, and previous to that day, the Marines were maneuvering. And I thought they were flying over on their maneuver."

But when they went out, they found out that wasn't the case.

"That's the way it started," Jezik said.

John Vrabel, 89, of Lower Burrell, said the memories will never leave him. He was at Hickam Field, adjacent to Pearl Harbor. He remembers a lot of blood and damage when he saw Pearl Harbor a few days after the attack.

Vrabel predicts that people will forget about Pearl Harbor.

"When we're gone, no one's going to celebrate it," he said, "... That's the way it is."

Vrabel can't attend today's ceremony because he's nursing his hip after a fall.

Jager will continue his push to keep Dec. 7, 1941, in infamy.

"I don't know what's going to happen, but I've been trying very hard to keep that legacy and memory alive because it can happen any time. It happened in New York," Jager said. "... I don't know if it will last or not, but as long as I'm living, I'm going to speak up about it and remind people of the fact that freedom is not free."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Additional Information:

Coming up

Who: American Legion Post 226, Brackenridge; Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5758, Tarentum

What: Pearl Harbor Commemoration

When: 11 a.m. today

Where: Brackenridge Legion, 845 First Ave.

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