By Jessica Trufant
The Patriot Ledger-
William Keith recalled sailors scrambling to climb a single ladder on the battleship USS West Virginia on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, at the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii.
Japanese aerial torpedoes had just blown the vessel apart, and time was running out for the sailors who were below deck.
“Everyone was trying to get up and guys were falling off,” Keith, now 93 and living in Quincy, recalled Monday night.
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Keith and hundreds of other sailors frantically escaped into the oily water after they managed to open a hatch on the sinking ship. More than 100 of his shipmates died in the attack, which launched the United States into World War II.
“The water was on fire; the sailors were on fire from the oil in the water,” World War II Foundation Chairman Tim Gray added, recounting the scene as it has been told to him by Keith and other veterans. “It’s very much a part of (Keith’s) thoughts.”
Three World War II veterans shared their experiences Monday at a Marina Bay reception for the 74th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Keith was a guest of honor at the event, along with former Boston Red Sox pitcher and three-time World Series winner Curt Schilling.
The event benefited the World War II Foundation in Kingston, R.I., a nonprofit organization that maintains veterans’ oral histories and other archives. It has produced 15 documentary films about the war and donated them to American Public Television and its PBS affiliates.
The other veterans were Joe Drago of West Roxbury, a Marine who arrived on the island of Okinawa with the first wave of troops on April 1, 1945; and Don McCarthy, who fought with the 116th Infantry in the second assault wave on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
In making the foundation’s documentaries, Gray has taken the veterans to the battlefields in Europe and the Pacific where they fought. While some younger generations may just see senior citizens, he said he sees so much more on those trips.
“When he was younger, he landed on Okinawa and he had more guts than you’ll ever have,” Gray said. “They were kids who were in high school who saved the world. What other generation can say they came together and did that? They did, and they’re too humble to talk about it.”
Gray said 800 World War II veterans die each day, and only a million of the 16.1 million Americans who served are still alive, making the mission of documenting their stories critical.
Schilling talked about his own ties to the military – his late father, Cliff Schilling, served in the 101st Airborne and retired as a master sergeant – and the respect he has for veterans.
“None of them felt there was any calling other than serving their country, and that at its core is what being a citizen of the United States is,” he said. “If I hadn’t been able to throw a ball accurately I would have worn a uniform and served my country.”