Voices go silent, 77 years after date of Pearl Harbor attack

  • In this Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016 photo placards and mementos with the phrase "Remember Pearl Harbor" are on display as part of an exhibit at The Museum of World War II, Boston, in Natick, Mass. The new exhibition, which opened Saturday, Oct. 8, features artifacts that have rarely been publicly displayed. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) Steven Senne

  • American ships burn during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1942. (AP Photo)

  • A Navy sailor stands at parade rest on the USS Halsey, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Honolulu. Today marks the 75th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor initiating the War in the Pacific. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia) Marco Garcia

  • Pearl Harbor survivor Roland Dagon, seen here in 2016 at the age of 96, died in 2017. Fellow New Hampshire survivors of the 1941 attack in Hawaii Alonzo Ireson of Rye and James Bilotta of Derry have also recently passed away.

  • U.S. soldiers at the Presidio in San Francisco gather around the bed of one of their comrades, Dec. 7, 1941, to read an extra reporting of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by the Japanese. AP file

  • Pearl Harbor survivor Walter Borchert puts his hand on his during a remembrance ceremony at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton on Dec. 7, 2017. Unlike previous years, Borchert says he’s done talking about his experiences during World War II. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor columnist
Published: 12/6/2018 5:00:13 PM

Walter Borchert, old and tired, is done talking about Pearl Harbor.

He was there on Dec. 7, 1941. He’s recounted to journalists what he saw, explaining the shock and smell from that snapshot, taking his responsibility seriously by revisiting history.

These days, though, Borchert simply wants to rest at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton, wants to pack his footlocker, wants to, in a sense, go home.

Most Americans who fought in World War II are gone now. The math says the youngest group who lived through Pearl Harbor, the 17 and 18 year olds late in 1941, are 94 or 95 today.

Borchert is 97 and – if I may be so bold as to speak for him – obviously believes it’s time to turn the page on his memories of what happened that day. Time for us to check the pages in the history books ourselves. Time to ask the children of the people who survived the attack for information.

Borchert told his social worker a few months ago that his time in the spotlight each year on this date had come to end. The social worker told Len Stuart, the program information officer at the state veterans home, and Stuart then told me.

“Walter indicated he no longer wanted to do interviews about Pearl Harbor,” Stuart said by phone. “And as with all our residents, we respect their wishes and we do our best to do what they want.”

My search for a voice from that infamous day only bolstered Borchert’s timing. I looked for a few of the New Hampshire veterans who the Monitor and other media outlets had spoken to in the recent past. The same sources as in years before, sure, but this story never gets old and never will.

I looked for Roland Dagon of Rochester and Alonzo Ireson of Rye and James Bilotta of Derry. I found obituaries for all three.

Ireson died last February, on Valentine’s Day, at the age of 98. He was survived by his wife, Ernestine, of 74 years, and they were featured in a story nearly 10 years ago, on the occasion of their 65th wedding anniversary. They said their marriage had lasted so long because they never argued.

Two years ago, Ireson was honored at the state veterans home on the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. He told the media he grabbed his rifle and had 10 bullets. He said he “was so confused, like everybody else. I didn’t know what was going on.”

His obit said he served 23 years in the Air Force and worked as an EMT in the Rye Fire Department for 12 years.

Like Ireson, Bilotta was honored at the state veterans home on the 75h anniversary of the attack. Like Ireson, he died this year (Sept. 9), he was 98 and he was survived by his wife, Edith, their marriage lasting 71 years.

And like Ireson, Bilotta’s voice this time came from media reports and his obit, recalling the story of when his breakfast was interrupted by the sound of bombs exploding and black smoke billowing.

“We heard the machine guns firing and bombs dropping and then we were assigned to our duty stations,” Bilotta, a Marine, wrote in his unpublished memoir, according to a published report three months ago. “It was terrible. It was an awful mess.”

My last chance at a first-person account was Roland Dagon of Rochester. I had written his story back in 2015, on the 74th anniversary, when he was 96.

His wife, Althea, sat by his side during the interview, and he made sure to mention that he was a lucky man, both for whom he had married and for surviving perhaps the most famous day in American history. Bilotta and Ireson both said something similar.

Dagon told me he was walking to church that day, a Sunday, when the Japanese planes first appeared overhead, in a perfect sky.

“What do you do when they start bombing? You run like hell to find cover,” Dagon said, responding to a question that had an obvious answer. “I go underneath a trailer, a big long trailer. I said I got to get out of here because I turned around and the paint shop was on fire and that’s going to explode, so I get out from underneath and I saw the (Japanese) and you could see the pilots.”

He was hit by shrapnel and transported to a hospital. He couldn’t remember how long he stayed there.

During our talk, Dagon’s thoughts moved back and forth, from the realization that he had been part of something really big, to the notion that this was old news and no one really cared anymore. He’d never gone back to Pearl Harbor.

“I wasn’t looking for no glory,” Dagon told me. “I don’t care whether I’d been to Pearl Harbor.”

Althea, though, never bought into that view. In fact, she returned to Pearl Harbor, without her husband, accompanied by Dagon’s sister in the 1990s. They visited the USS Arizona memorial.

“We threw flowers over the side,” Althea told me.

For the most part, sons and daughters and others will be tossing flowers over the side of the USS Arizona. Less than 2,000 survivors from that day are left among the 60,000 who made it.

Lots are dying. Some have finished talking. We’re entering a new era, a period of second-hand accounts.

“I know the feeling and that’s what I ran into when I was doing my research,” Stuart told me. “I started a couple of months ago, and pretty much everyone I was looking at has died.”

Not Borchert. He’ll be at Friday’s tribute at the state veterans home, and this time he’ll listen and blend in. He gave the Monitor a final interview last year, shortly after his wife of 74 years, Gloria, had died. He described the post-traumatic stress disorder that continues to haunt him to this day.

“It’s something that never leaves me,” Borchert said at the time. “I’ll never forget what happened.”

He’s done talking about it, though.

Time to rest.

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