Pearl Harbor: Day of infamy brings father, son together

It's Columbus man's way to pay tribute to his dad, declining number of Pearl Harbor attack survivors

December 6, 2012 

It's a day that will live in infamy, and a day that Greg Camp's aging father has never forgotten.

That's why today, Camp will sit down for lunch with his 92-year-old dad and four more survivors of the brutal Dec. 7, 1941, aerial attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese bombers.

The gathering will take place in San Antonio, where Col. Gene Camp retired in 1973 and where -- like virtually every area of the nation -- the number of Pearl Harbor veterans have dwindled to just a few.

"My dad has always been my hero. I joined the Army to follow in my father's footsteps, and I just wanted to be like him. So we have that in common," said Camp, himself a retired Army colonel who once was Fort Benning's chief of staff and now is executive vice president and chief development officer of the National Infantry Foundation in Columbus.

"I like being with him on Pearl Harbor Day because I know how much that meant to him," said Camp, who flew to Texas Thursday and will return home Sunday. "I know how that defined his life. I know how important it was to who he became. So I want to honor that by sharing it with him."

As the years tick by, Camp and others who pause each December to remember the surprise raid on Pearl Harbor know that precious few survivors of the event remain.

It was a year ago, following the 70th anniversary of the attack and special ceremonies in Hawaii, that the official Pearl Harbor Survivors Association called it quits. An organization that was founded in 1958 with about 28,000 members had declined to roughly 2,700 and many of those now alive are in deteriorating health.

In Columbus, Sallie Nelson, secretary of the Chattahoochee Valley veterans Council, believes there is only one or two survivors remaining in the area today. The rest have passed away.

But that won't stop Nelson and her husband, council chairman and retired Lt. Col. Sam Nelson, from honoring the sacrifice of those at Pearl Harbor today. An hourlong ceremony is planned at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 665 on Victory Drive at 10 a.m..

The event will include Hawaiian dancers, high school junior reserve officer training corps members and a President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reenactor reading his famed "Day of Infamy" speech that led the U.S. into World War II.

"When you see him, it's like he's risen from the dead. He wears the braces on his legs and everything," said Nelson, noting the council's flag also will be lowered to half-staff at 8 a.m. today.

The Pearl Harbor survivors chapter in San Antonio once had well over 100 members, said Camp, who has called his father each year on Dec. 7 to discuss the fateful event that always brings back vivid memories.

Camp knows his dad's story well. He joined the California National Guard in 1940 at age 20 and was shipped to Pearl Harbor about a year before the attack. A few days before the Japanese raid, he was promoted to gun sergeant for an anti-aircraft gun at Barber's Point near the harbor.

"It was a Sunday morning and they were asleep in their barracks," Camp said. "The first they knew of the attack was when a Japanese plane strafed their barracks and one of the soldiers inside was hit," he said. "My dad ran outside and saw this low-flying plane making a banking move and could see as clear as day the rising sun on the wing of that plane."

It was pure chaos afterward, with the Army troops scrambling to get their guns in position amid heavy machine-gun fire from the sky. By the time they were in place, it was all over, but the soldiers didn't know it, remaining on alert for two months.

The damage to Pearl Harbor and its forces was severe, however, with more than 2,400 U.S. military personnel killed and more than 1,100 wounded. Battleships, aircraft carriers, destroyers and planes were destroyed or heavily damaged. The attack left Americans stunned and prepared to jump into the war against both Japan and Germany.

"It's a day, of course, that I'll never forget. Years later, I realize I was an eyewitness to history," said Gene Camp via telephone Thursday from San Antonio. "If I start thinking about the machine gun attacks, it's very vivid. I can see those planes just like they are over the neighborhood almost."

After Pearl Harbor, Gene Camp shipped out to the far reaches of the South Pacific, serving 40 straight months and seeing action at Fiji, Guadalcanal and Bougainville, although he was never wounded. He decided to leave the military in 1944, then returned a short time later to finish out his career in 1973, retiring as a colonel in Texas with wife, Margaret.

The younger Camp, who had been sworn in by his dad during his officer commissioning in 1968, returned the favor at the retirement. He led the detachment in charge of the ceremony.

"He was there for a lot of action in World War II throughout the Pacific, but it all started with Pearl Harbor," said Camp, who plans on being back in Texas on Dec. 7 every year from here on out as long as he has his father.

Pearl Harbor, Greg Camp pointed out, is a history lesson that in some ways was repeated during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and at the Pentagon.

Just like the Japanese strike 71 years ago, the heart-wrenching moments just more than a decade ago in the U.S. will linger in the minds of many until they take their final breath.

"I guess the biggest parallel would be like saying, 'Listen, I was on the 48th floor of Tower One when the plane hit it. But I got out and I survived it. Then I sat there and watched that tower fall,'" Camp said. "The people that were there, that experienced 9/11, are the closest, I guess, that our generation can come to what it must have been like at Pearl Harbor. It was different. But in some ways, it was the same."

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