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75 years later: St. Louis memories of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the ‘date which will live in infamy’

Pearl Harbor survivor Bill Johnson reads the list of names inscribed in the USS Arizona Memorial.
Chief Journalist David Rush | U.S. Navy
Pearl Harbor survivor Bill Johnson reads the list of names inscribed in the USS Arizona Memorial.

Walter Schoenke was 9 years old when he survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Schoenke was not an active military member at that time, though he would go on to serve in the Air Force during the Korean War, but his father was. His father, Raymond, had moved to Hawaii to help construct the Schofield Barracks at Pearl Harbor, one of the targets of the attacks and Walter was born on the islands.

Walter, who lived in St. Louis until his death in January of this year, is one of the 1,200 veterans interviewed by the Missouri Veterans History Project, a statewide volunteer-run organization that collects the oral histories of U.S. soldiers from any war. After veterans are interviewed, the video footage is entered into both the Missouri State Historical Society and the U.S. Library of Congress.

Walter Schoenke, interviewed in 2014 by the Missouri Veterans History Project.
Credit Missouri Veterans History Project
Walter Schoenke, interviewed in 2014 by the Missouri Veterans History Project.

“When the Japanese attacked, it changed the whole concept: we were in a war zone,” Schoenke said in a 2014 interview with Robert Wagner from MVHP. “All the family members had to leave. My dad stayed and they entered into combat.”

Schoenke remembered the time immediately before and after the attacks, recalling his growing distrust of the Japanese schoolchildren living on the Island who he had previously played with in school.

“When the Japanese attacked, we were evacuated,” Schoenke said. “We left the island within 30 days after the attack, but before we left, my dad took me down to Pearl. He said: ‘I want you to see the devastation they did, don’t ever forget the devastation they did to us.’”

Other St. Louisans, such Oliver Paredes and Steve Delorey, remember hearing about the attacks with their families on the radio.

Dec. 7, 2016 marked the 75th anniversary of the “date which will live in infamy.” On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh devoted the entire hour to discussing the attacks, including listeners’ and veterans’ memories of that time period.

For the first part of the hour, he discussed the history of the attacks and St. Louisans involved in defending Pearl Harbor with U.S. military historian and Missouri S&T professor John C. McManus. McManus is the author of over ten books about the U.S. military, including “The Dead and Those About to Die,” “Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II Through Iraq,” and “The Americans at D-Day: The American Experience at the Normandy Invasion.”

McManus detailed the Japanese military strategy for attacking Pearl Harbor in addition to how the U.S. military responded. Initially, the Japanese didn’t want to enter into a war with the U.S. at all — but they did want to open up resources in the Pacific which would aid their expansionism and cut off U.S. influence in the territory. Thinking that a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would dismantle the American fleet, the Japanese air fleet attacked.

“The Japanese strategic concept is undercut by the Pearl Harbor Attack because that strike, which many Americans saw as treacherous, guaranteed U.S. unity,” McManus said. “A long-term war was not in Japan’s plans.”

In the second part of the hour, we heard from two representatives from the MVHP, Jill Alexander and Carl Sherman. The project is a local part of an act of federal legislation in 2000 which allowed the Library of Congress to start the Veterans History Project. Today, the organization is privately funded and accepts donations to support its work. Volunteers coordinate, talk to veterans groups, interview, videotape and log interviews with the veterans.

Jill Alexander and Carl Sherman of the Missouri Veterans History Project.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Jill Alexander and Carl Sherman of the Missouri Veterans History Project.

There are about 25 volunteers in the St. Louis region who conduct interviews.

Schoenke was one of three veterans interviewed with stories about Pearl Harbor. Many veterans who survived the Pearl Harbor attacks have since died, which makes the work of organizations like the MVHP time-sensitive.

The organization collects histories from anyone who has served in the military. If you know a veteran who should be interviewed or would like to volunteer as an interviewer, you can call the MVHP at 573-522-4220 or email info@mvhp.net. You can also visit the organization’s website at http://www.mvhp.net.

Interviews are available to listen/watch from anyone who requests them. You can search previous interviews here.

“Years ago, back in 1941, soldiers documented their experience through the written word — letters home, diaries,” Alexander said. “Those types of activities don’t exist anymore. People are not writing down their thoughts. Oral histories are a way for us to sit down, ask a set of questions and document a soldier’s experience.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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This report was prepared with help from our Public Insight Network. Click here to learn more or join our conversation. Click here to see comments from more PIN sources.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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