Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day: Vets resist 'hero' label, commend others
By Lou Fancher
Inflamed by the Japanese attack that killed more than 2,000 Americans at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, women and men in the United States went to work and went to war.
Honed to practicality by the Great Depression and united by what today seems an arguably idealistic goal of protecting democracy's freedoms, the U.S. engagement ultimately led to Germany and Japan's defeat.
Hailed as heroes and granted the well-known "Greatest Generation" label by journalist Tom Brokaw, many people consider survivors of the attack and World War II veterans to be heroes.
Which is why at a Pearl Harbor Remembrance Dinner at Zio Fraedo's restaurant in Pleasant Hill, the oft-heard phrase, "I'm not a hero," comes as a surprise.
"I'm not a hero," says Richard "Johnny" Johnson, 93, falling lock step into the pattern. "That day, I didn't realize the magnitude of what was happening. I had just turned 18 the day before. I grew up in a hurry."
Fortunate to be a Seaman Third Class on the USS San Francisco and not stationed on the USS Arizona on the day of the attack -- "The Arizona just turned over and not many sailors got out," he recalls -- Johnson says his mind was occupied 24/7 as he and the crew scrambled to get their vessel prepared for "what I realized was a big, big war."
Declining a heroic title, he says, "Americans woke up with deep fear on Dec. 8th. What made change was that American women went to work, building thousands of airplanes. They're the ones who made a big difference because we needed the equipment. They made us strong."
Similarly, 90-year-old Marine Corps veteran Andrew Parodi, of Walnut Creek, resists the label.
"Today, these guys and women signing up, there's no draft. They don't have to serve the way I did. They're the heroes, I'm not," he says.
Parodi was part of a dive bomber ground crew that followed infantry divisions "all over the Pacific." Courage, he insists, is "knowing what freedom is."
Invited to compare national sentiment in the 1940s to the current environment, Parodi says the mood was patriotic and universally supportive. "There was no political arena. We just had to win."
Keynote speaker, retired Col. Christopher Starling, director of Veterans and Marines Affairs at the Marines Memorial in San Francisco, served in all four Marine Divisions during his 26-year military career.
Dedicating his post-service employment to eliminating stereotypes about veterans and assisting their transition to civilian life, he says honoring all veterans on Pearl Harbor Day is a priority.
"It's not just World War II veterans we acknowledge today, in particular, the Vietnam vets who never received the level of appreciation I received coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, we must honor them."
Perhaps Jeanne Sharkey could serve as a hero. The Moraga resident launched the annual dinner about seven years ago after realizing there were no remembrance events held in Contra Costa County -- other than a trek to light the beacon on Mount Diablo. But even she deflects accolades.
"The dinner caught on right away. We had support from veteran's organizations, press coverage has been so strong -- there are 120 people here and more of them are from right off the street," she says.
Recalling a visit she made to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France, Sharkey's eyes fill with tears.
"Every American should go there. The men who got off those ships knew they would lose their lives. That's very special."
Abram Karnthong, a 17-year-old junior at Antioch High School and a U.S. Naval Sea Cadet says old movies with military heroes and his grandfathers -- who are veterans -- inspired his desire to join the armed forces.
"I thought, wow, if it could give them that leadership ability, what could it do for me?" Courage, Karnthong says, is evident in conduct and expressed by character.
"These veterans were probably like me when they were my age. They risked their lives.
"I hear a lot of negativity from my peers and others, but I say the military can give you a good life. It can build character."
Asked if his ambition to attend the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and serve his country makes him a hero, Karnthong voices a no-longer surprising answer: "Nope, I'm not a hero ... not yet."