Remembering Pearl Harbor

·9 min read

Dec. 5—WILKES-BARRE — Dec. 7, 1941 has, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, "lived in infamy."

As the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii approaches, we must take time to remember our heroic dead and also to pause to thank all veterans of all wars for their service to our country.

The Pearl Harbor attack killed 2,403 service members and wounded 1,178 more, and sank or destroyed six U.S. ships. Also destroyed were 169 U.S. Navy and Army Air Corps planes.

On the enemy side, Japanese losses included 29 aircraft, in addition to five midget submarines, and 129 attackers were killed and one taken prisoner.

Luzerne County servicemen killed

Luzerne County lost eight men on that tragic day. As compiled several years ago by staff writer Ed Lewis, they were:

—Brinley Varchol, 25, of Steel Street, Hanover Township, graduated from Hanover Township High School in 1936 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Sept. 3, 1936. Gunner's Mate Second Class on the USS Arizona, where he was active on the battleship's sports teams and was a regular player on the baseball team.

—Albert Joseph Konnick, 25, of Auburn Street, Wilkes-Barre, graduate of Coughlin High School, enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Jan. 14, 1936. He was a Carpenter's Mate Third Class on the USS Arizona.

—Keith Jeffries, 23, of Sharpe Street, Newport Township. He was a graduate of Newport Township High School, enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Dec. 12, 1939. Jeffries was a coxswain on the USS Arizona.

—John Peter Rutkowski, 23, of Hanover Street, Nanticoke, left Nanticoke High School in his junior year to work at the General Cigar Company. Enlisted in the U.S. Navy Oct. 16, 1940. He was a Seaman First Class on the USS Arizona.

—John Joseph Petyak, 21, of Anthracite Street, Wilkes-Barre, graduated from GAR High School and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Oct. 1, 1940. He was a Seaman First Class on the USS Arizona.

—John Edward Burns, 25, of Corlear Street, Wilkes-Barre. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Oct. 9, 1940, and served as a Fireman First Class on the USS Arizona.

—Joseph J. Resuskey, 41, of Jenkins Township, served 20 years in the U.S. Navy. He was a Chief Boatswains Mate.

—Edward Slapikas, 26, of Wanamie, attended Newport Township schools. He was a Seaman First Class on the USS Oklahoma. Slapikas' remains were identified in 2017 and returned home. He was buried in St. Mary's Cemetery in Wanamie in June 2018.

'We must never forget what they died for'

A Times Leader story that ran a couple of years ago detailed a service at the Daddow-Isaacs Dallas American Legion Post 672.

"As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, 'This day will live in infamy,' and we will never forget," said Clarence Michael, an Army veteran who spoke at the service. "I have visited Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. We have come through the attack on Pearl Harbor, the loss of our battleships and the loss of so many soldiers."

Michael said many people still wonder why Pearl Harbor happened. He acknowledged that many World War II veterans are gone, but he said it is important to remember them and their stories.

"We must never forget what they died for," Michael said. "We must celebrate their service to our country — the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Ceremonies like that one at the Dallas American Legion are held to remember the 2,403 service members and civilians who were killed — 1,178 more were injured in the attack.

On Aug. 23, 1994, the United States Congress designated Dec. 7 as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

And as the years go by, our World War II veterans — the foundation of "the Greatest Generation" — are disappearing right before our eyes.

On this, the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the importance of remembering our World War II veterans grows more and more significant.

Jim Spagnola, Luzerne County's veterans affairs director, once told me he will always remember the conversations he's had with World War II veterans — how humble they all are, how proud to have served, how reluctant they are to be called "hero."

These men and women have set an example that must be followed if we are to remain strong. There are so many stories about bravery and courage and country-before-self that the least we can do is stop and pause to remember what each has done for us.

Navy Seaman 1st Class Edward F. Slapikas

In June of 2018, Navy Seaman 1st Class Edward F. Slapikas of the Wanamie section of Newport Township, was laid to rest.

Nearly 80 years after she last saw him, Leona Hotko, who has since passed away, said a final farewell to her favorite uncle at his Saturday morning funeral.

"I'm glad he's finally home," said Hotko, then 88 and holding the folded American flag from her brother's casket."I feel a sense of peace knowing that he is at rest."

Slapikas, who was 26 when he was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma. It was moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, when the ship was attacked by Japanese aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941, resulting in America's entry into World War II.

His remains were identified through DNA testing and the Wanamie native was returned to his hometown for burial, 76 years after dying for his country at Pearl Harbor.

As the hearse carrying his flag-draped casket made its way through Wanamie and Glen Lyon, residents stood along the road waving flags and holding signs — "Welcome home Eddie," one said — while the Stars and Stripes hung proudly outside many homes.

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Fung headed a large naval contingent that escorted Slapikas into the church and to his final resting place. There was a 21-gun salute before the flag was taken from his casket, folded and presented to the family at graveside.

Mullery said Slapikas paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation.

Slapikas' last message, a Christmas card, arrived two weeks after the family was notified of his death.

At the funeral. Frank Slapikas said he was just 3 when his uncle died at Pearl Harbor. He said he only knew about Slapikas through his father, Frank, and his father's brothers.

"I can remember sitting on our porch and listening to all the brothers tell stories about Uncle Eddie," Slapikas said that day. "Even though I didn't know him, I felt I should be here today for him."

Also attending the funeral was Vern Treat, of Glen Lyon, who said he considers himself a naval historian. He said he purchased a hat with USS Oklahoma on it and presented it to Mrs. Hotko. Treat said Newport Township showed it was proud of Slapikas.

"When people look at Newport Township, they sometimes think it's a run-down, dilapidated town," Treat said. "I like to look at the town's history and its people, like Seaman Slapikas who gave his life for us. This is a huge honor for him to come home and for his hometown to turn out and show their respect."

Megatulski's Pacific memories

Bob Megatulski was 20 years old, hard at work with his fellow U.S. Navy Seabees on military construction projects thousands of miles from home in the Philippines.

Two years into his overseas service, the news thousands had prayed and fought and died for finally arrived — Japan would stop fighting, effectively bringing World War II to an end.

It was Aug. 15, 1945, but for Megatulski, the memory remains clear.

"We all ran outside and cheered," Megatulski, 96, said in a Times Leader story last year. "We yelled 'It's over! It's over!"

The official surrender order wasn't signed until Sept. 2, 1945 — Megatulski still has a copy of it among his war records and other keepsakes — but the end of fighting came less than a week after U.S. forces dropped a second atomic bomb on Japan, striking the city of Nagasaki on Aug. 9.

Discussing the war last year during an interview in his Durkee Street kitchen, Megatulski summed up his view on President Harry S. Truman's decision to unleash nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki very succinctly.

"He did what he had to do," Megatulski said.

Megatulski was 17 when he enlisted in the Navy and 18 when he was sworn in and soon sent off to war. He said those that went to battle had one thing in common.

"We had the balls to go out there and shoot," he said.

During his time in the Pacific Theater, Megatulski earned four Bronze Stars.

"I've been bombed, strafed, shot at, shelled," Megatulski said.

He was assigned to the 77th Naval Construction Battalion (hence the name "Seabees," from CBs) in the South Pacific.

Megatulski said when the Seabees were building an airfield in Manilla, Japanese planes would fly overhead dropping 15 to 20 bombs at a time.

Was he ever afraid?

"We would get peppered with bombs, sometimes for two weeks straight," he said. "We knew we were in a war. We encountered plenty of action, but fortunately, we had very few casualties."

Megatulski also told of the time they encountered a sniper in a coconut tree.

"We took him down," he said with a feisty tone still in his voice.

And, he said, there were times that it crossed his mind that he might not ever return home.

Japanese banzai squads would constantly attack.

"They would just keep coming and coming," he said.

Megatulski knows what war is all about. He knows what it means to kill or be killed. He knows guys like him — all members of The Greatest Generation — did what they had to do for their country. Without question or reservation and with full acceptance that they might never return home.

As Megatulski talked about his return home from war, you could see the emotion on his face and you could hear it in his voice.

Megatulski worked in the hardware business and would later become a member of Forty Fort Borough Council and then the town's mayor.

Megatulski, like all those who returned from war, came back to their hometowns, got a job, got married, raised a family and got involved in their community.

After defending our freedom, the Greatest Generation returned to re-build their country — town by town, state by state. They made America great again long before the phrase became a campaign slogan.

Megatulski received his Honorable Discharge in April 1946 as Boatswain Mate 2.

Megatulski is deservedly proud of his service. He knows what he and all military did for their country.

"I'd never want to go through it again," he said. "Kids today don't understand what we went through. I had enough of it.

"People today tend to take it all for granted. Freedom comes at a price."

Reach Bill O'Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.

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