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Updated: 12/06/2012 08:00:06AM

Remember our WWII vets and Pearl Harbor

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Seventy-one years ago Friday, people around Polk County, as was true throughout the nation, were shocked and horrified when they learned that the United States had been attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor.

The late Charlie Swain, a Bartow resident and the father of long-time newspaper employee Anita Swain, was a proud survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack. His ship, the USS Vestal, was attached by line to the ill-fated USS Arizona. Swain’s ship was hit two times in the same attack that sank the Arizona.

Swain said he watched as a Japanese pilot fired a torpedo his. The missile passed beneath the Vestal and struck the USS Arizona, sinking it.

“The pilot circled around us. I could see his teeth; he was smiling,” Charlie said.

He and several of his shipmates, including the captain, were thrown into the water by the blast. The captain ordered the other men to swim to shore, and then swam back to his ship.

Seventy-one years ago Friday, teenaged machinist’s mate Miles Carpenter was on the USS Phoenix, docked at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when waves of Japanese fighters and bombers attacked. Carpenter was one of the lucky ones: The USS Phoenix was not hit. The ship, a light cruiser, got under way in about 15 minutes time, but was blocked from a full escape to open water by the battleship USS West Virginia, in flames and smoking. Still, it survived.

Some 2,402 American service men and women died as a result of the attack; 57 civilians were killed. Another 1,282 on the base were wounded on what President Roosevelt called a “date which will live in infamy.” That was true. It is one of the most significant dates in this nation’s history.

As everyone should know, the attack on Pearl Harbor led to America’s entrance into World War II. Before the Axis was beaten and the Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, some 16 million men and women had joined the armed forces. More than 400,000 lost their lives; nearly 700,000 were wounded.

The emotion, the anger and sense of collective angst was probably not felt again until terrorists attacked New York on Sept. 11, 2001.

Carpenter survived it all on that day in 1941. He went on to meet wife-to-be Jeanne at a Navy Mothers Hostess House while the Phoenix was being reconditioned at the Navy Yard there. They were married soon after the war and moved to Florida four decades ago. This week, Carpenter stopped by one of our offices to pay a visit. He is a little unsteady on his feet these days, but still extremely proud to have served.

Swain is gone now but not forgotten. He never forgot his public service and was always proud that he was Pearl Harbor survivor.

Florida is home to many thousands of World War II veterans, but their ranks are growing thinner day by day.

All — present and passed away — deserve our respect and thanks. Friday, and every Dec. 7, we remember.