Four fight to preserve Pearl Harbor lessons

Four are left in Johnson County, by best estimates.

They will gather today in Mission, those four who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor — 70 years ago today — and scores of others bound by the need to never forget.

The four know each other well: Dorwin Lamkin, Jack Carson, Edmund Russell and Jesse Dunnagan. They meet for lunch every couple of months at a restaurant on Metcalf Avenue. They speak to any classroom that invites them.

The youngest, Carson, is 88. The oldest, Russell, is 94, and he leads the lunch group in prayer.

They were strangers to one another that morning Japanese bombs fell and forever changed America. More than being hurled into World War II, “we changed that day from being an island to being a nation,” said Lamkin.

But seven decades can change a nation, too.

And these days the dwindling ranks of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association worry that lessons from that date of infamy are fading.

Just this week, a high school student from Olathe interviewed Lamkin and relayed that among 18 pupils in his history class, only four knew what happened Dec. 7, 1941.

Mention Pearl Harbor in some classrooms, said Russell of Lenexa, and “some kids ask if it’s a rock group.”

Then again, how many survivors are out there to set the kids straight? One from Roeland Park, Harry John Helmsing, died just a few months ago.

Out of some 60,000 military personnel at Pearl Harbor during the attack, only 3,000 survivors remained active last year in association chapters across the country. At the 2010 national convention in Honolulu, a few of the 100 attending survivors even broached the topic of disbanding.

Not these guys.

“I’m planning on hitting the 100 mark,” Carson said.

Today they will address a crowd of schoolchildren, fellow veterans, widows and widowers at the annual reunion of local Pearl Harbor survivors. The event at the Sylvester Powell Jr. Community Center in Mission begins at 11:15 a.m.

The city of Mission, where Lamkin resides, has done its part in keeping the history fresh. At Lamkin’s insistence, the city dedicated the Pearl Harbor Memorial Park in 2003, erecting two benches that named all members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Kansas City Metro III chapter, dating to the 1980s.

More than 50 names grace the benches.

This year the park made room for a new display — an enshrined piece of metal fetched from the sunken USS Arizona. Lamkin and his buddies helped raise the $8,000 needed to encase the artifact and arranged with groups in Hawaii to document that the ship fragment was authentic.

“That sounds like a simple task for some people,” Lamkin said, “but for old farts like us, it’s very complicated.”

The survivors can count on organizational help from former Mission City Council member Ron Appletoft and his teenage son, Quinn. Fairway public relations specialist Susan Pepperdine volunteers her time to promote the group’s reunions and park dedications.

“We do this not just for the survivors who are still with us — our time is limited for that — but also for the children, grandchildren and the generations to come,” said Christy Humerickhouse, Mission’s director of parks and recreation. “They’re the ones who shouldn’t forget.”

Dunnagan of Prairie Village can’t forget. He was serving in the Navy aboard the battleship California when a Japanese bomber flew close enough for Dunnagan to glimpse the pilot’s goggles.

His crew abandoned ship, and Dunnagan spent the night in a foxhole, girding for more attacks. He still has the telegram sent to his parents, reporting he was missing in action and presumed dead.

“Everything was so confused,” he recalled. “My younger brother joined the Navy thinking I’d been killed.”

Confusion reigned, too, during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he noted.

“That’s the message we need to get to these young people: Be prepared. Never be caught that way again,” Dunnagan said.

The stories the survivors tell are personal, of very young men who couldn’t have understood the history they were witnessing.

“None of us are representing ourselves as heroes” or historians, Lamkin said. “We’re all just speaking as survivors.”

Today and whenever they meet for lunch, the four will bow their heads in prayer — for all who have since passed, and for more than 2,400 Americans who did not survive.

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