On a perfectly clear day in Pismo Beach, with the sunlight glinting off the Pacific Ocean, a small group of veterans gathered to remember another morning 71 years ago that started bright and peaceful, before the quiet was suddenly shattered.
The annual gathering of Pearl Harbor survivors and their families was smaller this year. Only about a dozen people met at Steamers of Pismo for a lunch hosted by the F. McLintocks family, which started honoring the survivors with the annual event in 1981.
In past years, more than 100 survivors and family members had attended the lunch, but now F. McLintocks has a mailing list of just 24 survivors in San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties.
“It’s important that we work with the young people and not let them forget the places like Pearl Harbor,” said Arroyo Grande resident Charles Howell, 79.
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He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1952, at 19 years old, 11 years after the Japanese attack that killed 2,390 service members and 49 civilians on Dec. 7, 1941, and launched the United States into World War II.
“Every generation has fought a war,” said Howell, who served in Vietnam and other conflicts. “And we’ve got to remember all of them.”
Elmer Smith, 96, was one of three Pearl Harbor survivors at Friday’s lunch.
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1937 and traveled to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on the USS Oklahoma. He then was transferred to the USS Northampton.
Elmer Smith’s ship was at sea the day of the attack, but he and a teammate were still at the port, overhauling engines on all the boats from his ship, Ruth Smith said Friday. She spoke for her husband, who has Alzheimer’s.
On Dec. 7, he woke to the sound of loud explosions, and stepped outside to see what was going on. At that moment, a Japanese A6M Zero fighter flew over his head.
Elmer Smith and his teammate spent the day maneuvering around slicks of burning oil, ferrying sailors to their ships and picking up bodies. When he spotted the USS Oklahoma had capsized, “it was like someone kicked him in the belly.”
He alerted authorities that there were still people inside. In 2004, at the annual lunch, he met a survivor who had been on the ship that day.
Elmer Smith later studied engineering at Cal Poly, got his contractor’s license and built more than 200 homes in the area. For years, he didn’t talk about the war, but eventually opened up to Ruth, his wife of nearly 23 years.
“Once, I asked him if he ever felt guilty that he was alive,” she recalled.
“He said, no, that he felt God had a reason he was alive.”