The passage of time has softened Gene Reinhardt's firsthand recollection of seeing our nation attacked like never before 75 years ago.
The frightful sound of Japanese propellers descending from the skies at Pearl Harbor now comes across at a lower volume in his memory. He can summon up fewer details of scurrying to life with his fellow Army servicemen at Schofield Barracks in Oahu as planes pounced and thundering bombs began to drop, signaling the United States' entry into World War II.
But even at 95 years of age, from his longtime home in Belmont, Reinhardt continues to desire and expect that Americans will never forget what happened that fateful Sunday morning on Dec. 7, 1941.
"I don't see it in my mind as clearly as I used to," he said. "But I hope that it will stick in people's minds somewhere … in some little nick and corner."
Reinhardt was still a baby-faced teenager growing up in Shelby when he convinced his parents to let him drop out of Shelby High School and travel overseas in 1940. He enlisted in the Army after an uncle returned from serving in Hawaii and described it as a virtual paradise.
"He came back telling me how pretty it was," said Reinhardt, who chose it over Panama and the Philippines.
By December of 1941, Reinhardt had become a technician fifth grade, where he helped to oversee radio and telephone communications in the area. Schofield Barracks was about 15 miles away from Pearl Harbor, but even closer to Wheeler Army Airfield, which was a primary target of the Japanese when the attack began just before 8 a.m.
Reinhardt and his friends heard the first couple of huge bombs explode, then sprinted outside to see the third bomb drop in the distance. They immediately went to battle stations, realizing what was transpiring.
"We got up real fast," he said. "I remember in my mind seeing one of the (Japanese) planes coming in."
Long life after tragedy
Reinhardt recalls hearing the rumble of the USS Arizona battleship exploding. In all, the two-hour assault killed some 2,400 servicemen, sank 21 ships of the U.S. Pacific fleet, and destroyed 188 planes while damaging another 159, according to the U.S. Navy.
The U.S. would enter the war the next day, but Reinhardt was transferred to Australia. He participated in landings in the Pacific Theater, including at New Guinea, but was spared the carnage that so many Marines saw during island combat in the 1940s.
After being discharged in 1945, Reinhardt married his wife, Mary Ella. They moved to Gastonia, and then to Belmont, where they still live today. They have two daughters, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
These days, he is no longer surprised by his fading memories of serving in the Army. And he knows he is among the last of a unique breed.
It is unclear exactly how many survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack are still living. As recently as 2013, Eileen Martinez, chief of interpretation for the USS Arizona Memorial, told the Reuters news agency that only 2,000 to 2,500 survivors were thought to still be alive.
Reinhardt's best friend from Pearl Harbor, who lived in Davenport, Iowa, died last year.
"We would call and talk to each other at least once a year, but his wife told me he had passed on," said Reinhardt. "As well as I know, I'm the only one out of my little group of friends remaining."
Reinhardt returned to Hawaii and visited the Pearl Harbor memorial there once in 1983. He also became a part of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. While attending local veterans events over the years, he's been known to don a distinctive hat that affirms his membership in that group.
His name for it sums up the defiance and strength of a country that refused to be defeated 75 years ago.
"I call it my 'go to hell' hat,'" he said. "It's something that stands out."
-- You can reach Michael Barrett on Twitter @GazetteMike.