Sixty-five years ago this morning, James Gilbert awoke to bombs and gunfire while ashore at Pearl Harbor in what was then the United States territory of Hawaii.
Japanese warplanes were attacking the U.S. naval fleet stationed there, an attack that would vault the nation into World War II.
Mr. Gilbert, then a 21-year-old ensign aboard the destroyer USS MacDonough, is one of just five Pearl Harbor survivors in the Toledo area today. Twenty-one were living in the area just five years ago.
Nationwide, about 6,000 who were there that day survive. Fewer than 400 of them are expected to attend this week's reunion of the Pearl Harbor Survivors' Association, which group leaders say will be its last formal gathering.
"We're not getting any younger, and lot of these guys are just getting too old to travel," said Mal Middlesworth of Upland, Calif., this year's national president.
The Dec. 7, 1941, death toll was 2,403, a single-event number not exceeded until nearly 60 years later, when radical Islamic terrorists flew two hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center in New York City.
But unlike the New York attack, a simultaneous attack on the Pentagon in Washington, and a hijacking that ended with a plane crash in a Pennsylvania field, memories of Pearl Harbor are fading from the American conscience.
The dwindling number of Pearl Harbor survivors has prompted many of the association's chapters to disband, including Toledo's, which turned its memorabilia over to the Veterans of Foreign Wars two years ago.
As that circle of people with first-hand memories of that "Day of Infamy" draws tighter, Mr. Gilbert sees the day coming ever closer when Dec. 7 is just another day on the calendar.
"It'll be like Armistice Day," he said.
Nov. 11 originally marked the 1918 end of organized hostilities in World War I. In the United States it has since been renamed Veterans Day to honor all who've served in the military.
"Memorial Day has become just another holiday, and Dec. 7 will be even more ignored," Mr. Gilbert said. At the very least, he said, "It should be a day of remembrance, with all flags at half-staff."
But even for an eyewitness, finding new things to say about Dec. 7, 1941, is a challenge. Scheduled to speak at noon tomorrow during the American Legion Toledo Post No. 335's weekly luncheon at the Toledo Club, Mr. Gilbert said this time his remarks will concentrate on his Naval career before and after Pearl Harbor.
"After Pearl Harbor was much more exciting than Pearl Harbor Day itself," said Mr. Gilbert, who was the MacDonough's fire-control officer that fateful morning and would progress through a series of Naval assignments ending with command of a patrol boat and the rank of lieutenant commander.
Mr. Gilbert enlisted in the Navy on Aug. 2, 1940, after he had been denied admission to the Naval Academy, and he soon enrolled in a reserve midshipman training program. His services as his ship's fire-control officer did not come into play during the Pearl Harbor attack, from which the destroyer escaped unscathed.
Mr. Gilbert said his greatest personal significance for the attack's 65th anniversary is that it means his 65th wedding anniversary is approaching.
On May 16, 1942, Mr. Gilbert met Jane Savage while ashore at Alameda, Calif., and they married 10 days later.
"I knew I had good thing, and I wanted to be sure I wouldn't lose her," he recalled.
After the wedding, he said, "I was out to sea for seven months. At first, I became very concerned because I wasn't getting very many letters, but then they started to come in."
Information from The Blade's wire services was used in this report.
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