December 7, 1941. A Japanese strike force launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In two hours, they destroyed 20 American battleships, 300 planes, and killed over 2,000. Another 1,000 were wounded, and America was left in shock.
Gaetano Benza was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and even at 90 sounds like a typical Italian-New Yorker:
“I was at Normandy. I was there. Have you seen ‘Saving Private Ryan’? Let me tell you about what they didn’t show you…
I was 17 when we heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. My friends and I, we wanted to join up right away. We had it all worked out, that we would go to Canada and join the Royal Air Force. We would go to England and then get reassigned with the American Air Corps.
He laughed as he recalled the one small problem with that plan:
“We had to get a parent’s permission at 17, and not many of us could. So I enlisted when I was 18.
When I first shipped out, it took 11 days to get to Scotland. We had to keep changing course to avoid the German subs. When we came back, after the war, it only took 4 days to get to New York.”
But Pearl Harbor was burned into his memory:
The USS California sinks. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
“It woke us up. It changed everything. We were dumbfounded. We wondered if it was real. We couldn’t believe that it was happening here. We never thought anyone would attack us here, and that was shocking.”
Joe Abernathy, who turned 90 on the 74th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks, answered the phone with a slow Tennessee drawl reminiscent of the late Senator Fred Thompson:
“I turned 16 the day Pearl Harbor was attacked.
I think we all wanted to sign up that day. I already had brothers who had signed up and shipped out, friends who had done the same. As the youngest of four boys, I wanted to be with the big guys, so when I could graduate early and enlist, I did.”
But he still remembered what he was thinking that day, at 16:
Survivors are evacuated from the USS Virginia Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
“I grew up on a farm in Tennessee, a dairy farm. And we had just heard the news on the radio that afternoon. So later that day as I was walking the cows, I kept thinking about my brothers and my friends and whether they were all right.
I wondered if they were coming to get me next.
I didn’t much like the idea of killing people, but I wasn’t keen on someone coming and attacking us either, you know?”
But the point that both men stressed had more to do with their lives today: educate the younger generations. Said Abernathy:
“I’m fortunate enough to be sitting here, alive. I have a nice wife right here with me – don’t tell her that, though – so if I can teach the young ones anything by telling my story, I’m for it.”
And Benza added:
Dick Girocci is one of several Pearl Harbor survivors who greets visitors to the Memorial. Image Credit: Facebook
“I never used to tell my story. None of us who were there did, really. But one day I saw an ROTC group outside a Sam’s Club and I asked a 14-year-old kid what he knew about Normandy. And he didn’t know what I was talking about.
Now, I tell my story to everyone who will listen. I want this generation to know what we went through.”
And Benza has made good on that promise. Even at 90, he routinely speaks at local schools and veterans events.