Veterans reflect on 79th anniversary of attack on Pearl Harbor

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Wilmington holds the honor of the first World War II Heritage City. The history began 79 years ago when the United States joined the fight, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

“A lot of young men went down the very next day, it happened on a Sunday, went down on Monday to enlist in the armed forces,” Retired Navy Veteran and Military Historian Wilbur Jones said. “A couple of days later the president, Roosevelt, asked congress to declare war and they did. We mobilized and won the war.”

Several battleships were damaged, including the USS Arizona and the USS Oklahoma, which sunk.

Jones says three sailors from Wilmington were killed that day aboard the USS Arizona, USS Shaw and USS Oklahoma.

Aircrafts were also destroyed and more than 3,500 hundred Americans either died or were injured.

Reflecting on the events that happened when he was only 7, inspiring him to join the armed forces and pursue a career in military history, Jones says it’s important for us to remember all that has been sacrificed.

“It has to be a constant reminder, which is why I continue to work at my age and will as long as I possibly can, because we must be proud of what we have done and the effort the entire country put together in World War II.”

Efforts of men and women like 96-year-old George VanVekoven.

VanVekoven married his sweetheart in 1943, drafted shortly after his wedding day and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“The draft board called me up and said, ‘we think you got married to stay out of the draft,'” VanVekoven said. “I was a cocky little kid, so I said ‘if you think that, draft me.’ They did.”

First sent to serve in the infantry, VanVekoven was asked if he would like to join the Air Force. A lifelong love of flying, he quickly agreed, going on to pass all tests to become a fighter pilot except the color test.

“The only thing that saved my life was being color blind,” VanVekoven said.

His color blindness landed him in Air Force Intelligence, where he told crews what to do and recorded their stories.

“We took over 60 bombers. After a year and a half in combat, we come back with one plane,” VanVekoven said. “Only 9 crews of 10 men each finished 35 missions and went back to the states. All the rest went down.”

After World War II, VanVekoven went on to serve in the Korean War and Vietnam War. Finally retiring in 1975 as an intelligence operations superintendent, ranked Chief Master Sergeant.

Jones typically leads a Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony at the Hannah Block Historic USO, but it was cancelled due to coronavirus. He says he looks forward to resuming the tradition next year for the 80th anniversary.

Additionally, he invites all who would like to see the proclamation declaring Wilmington as the first World War II Heritage City at the USO.

There is one remaining Pearl Harbor Survivor in the Cape Fear, Navy Veteran Bud Hollenbeck.

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