Louise McRoberts, 94, of Windham, signed up for World War II on her 20th birthday: Oct. 14, 1944.
“My parents wouldn’t sign the consent form,” she said.
Life changed for McRoberts and the nation at large after the events of Dec. 7, 1941. Japan’s attack at the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, resulted in the deaths of 2,403 Americans — 68 of whom were civilians. The surprise strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service was the catalyst for the United States’ entry into World War II.
“It was mayhem after that,” McRoberts recalled, noting she heard the news on the radio.
“There was no question about patriotism,” she added. “People lied to enlist. We had 17-year-olds, 16-year-olds.”
McRoberts’ decision was spurred by the wave of young men and women enlisting, she said.
“Everyone was going — my brother, my cousins and my best girlfriend went in,” McRoberts recalled. “I lived in part of New York, in Queens, where there wasn’t much to do.”
McRoberts served as a medic under the rank of tech 3 sergeant in the Special Services branch of the U.S. Army Central, formerly the 3rd United States Army, until she was honorably discharged in 1947. Her unit was traveling to the Pacific Ocean when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima from Aug. 6-9, 1945, she said, and the convoy had to be rerouted.
Tom Bristol, 94, of Windham, enlisted in 1943 at 17. At that age, he needed his parents’ consent.
“After a while, they were supportive,” Bristol said.
Bristol had been working for his father as an electrician and the family business had dried up due to the war, he said. Bristol continues to work as an electrician today.
Bristol recalled being at work with his father when he heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack on the radio, he said.
“We stopped working immediately,” he said, adding the two did not return to work for a few days afterward.
In the Army, Bristol attained the rank of sergeant and was a tail-gunner on the fighter planes.
“I went on 54 missions,” Bristol said. “On my 13th mission — on my 20th birthday — I was shot up a little bit. We called it a ‘good landing.’ Everyone survived; I was the only one injured. The plane burst into flames.”
Bristol received the Purple Heart as a result of the mission, which took place over Karachi, India, he said. Today, Karachi is the capital of the province of Sindh in Pakistan.
Bristol was honorably discharged in 1945 and keeps the memory of his experience alive by talking to students and at medical offices.
“I have a shirt that I wear on Pearl Harbor Day,” he said. “It says ‘Pearl Harbor’ on it so people can see.”
Louis Brenner, 92, of Hudson, enlisted in the Navy Armed Guard in 1944. He was 17 years old.
It wasn’t long before Brenner saw some serious action — he enlisted in February and by October, his first ship was sunk in the Philippines.
“We lost over 700 ships in the war,” Brenner said.
Brenner served as a seaman 1st Class in a unit of the Navy Armed Guard as a gunner on merchant ships and tankers.
“There was 24 of us,” he said. “The U-boats were sinking our ships left and right and the Japanese kamikaze bombers got my ship. There were 300 troops on board, but we got them off first.”
Brenner remembered learning of the Pearl Harbor attack outside of a motel.
“I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was,” he said.
He went home to find his family listening to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the radio, he recalled.
Brenner was honorably discharged in 1946.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” he said.
Brenner’s three brothers also served in the war, and to the family’s gratitude, all of them returned home safely.THE END OF OUR INNOCENCE
History enthusiast Ron Gabriele, of Athens, thinks Pearl Harbor marks a significant turning point in history.
“Historians have suggested that the America today is more of a result of Dec. 7, 1941, than the events of 1776,” he said. “That gives you an idea of how momentous it was in American history. It truly was the end of our innocence. After Pearl Harbor, after World War II, we were never the same.”
Gabriele has always been fascinated with history, especially World War II.
“I was born in ’41,” he said. “The people that lived through it, I grew up with them. I’d ask them, ‘Where were you?’ [when the attack happened]? I never met anyone who was alive and of the age of understanding who couldn’t recite in great detail where they were and what they were doing.”
Gabriele has honored the lives of veterans by giving historical talks on the war for the last 10 years.
The last session of his Pearl Harbor Day talks wrapped up Thursday night at the Vedder Memorial Library in Coxsackie. His Pearl Harbor Day talks are divided into two parts: “The Plan” and “The Attack.”
Gabriele has a personal connection to the war. His uncle, Michael Gabriele, was a staff sergeant in the 9th Infantry Division from 1941 until 1945.
Michael originally enlisted for a one-year tour, Ron explained, but Roosevelt changed the terms to “for the duration for the war plus six months,” following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Michael saw combat throughout Europe in Sicily and France, and in North Africa. He received several medals including the pre-Pearl Harbor Badge, the Purple Heart for being injured in the line of duty and the Silver Star for braving enemy fire to repair communication lines while under attack in Germany.
“The average size of a unit was 200 men,” Ron said. “He was one of 11 from his unit to return.”
Michael was a life-long resident of Athens. He died in 1992.
Columbia County Director of Veterans Services Gary Flaherty has fond memories of former Canaan Town Supervisor Len Dooran — a veteran of Pearl Harbor who died at 97.
“He was having breakfast and a Japanese plane flew by the window,” Flaherty said.
Dooran was a warrant officer in the Navy, stationed at Pearl Harbor with his wife and first child.
Flaherty served on the Canaan Town Board with Dooran in the mid-1990s.
“He got me involved in politics,” Flaherty said. “None of our warriors should ever be forgotten. We don’t have many World War II vets left, unfortunately.”
Sixteen million Americans served in World War II and as of Sept. 30, 496,777 of those men and women are still alive, according to statistics from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
Nearly 350 World War II veterans die each day. At that rate, all American World War II veterans will be dead in four years. In New York, a state with a population of nearly 20 million, only 26,190 World War II veterans survive.
Veterans advocate Vince Grimaldi, of Taghkanic, finds meaning in the words President Ronald Reagan spoke about veterans and their sacrifices — not just at Pearl Harbor, but anywhere men wage war.
“They gave up two lives — their youth and their future,” Grimaldi said. “That has always bothered me.”