By DAVE GYMBURCH Sentinel staff writer
DAY OF INFAMY ¿ A small boat rescues a seaman from the 31,800 ton USS West Virginia (BB-48), which is burning in the foreground. Smoke rolling out amidships shows where the most extensive damage occurred. Note the two men in the superstructure. The USS Tennessee (BB-43) is inboard.
FIRST CROSSING ¿ Sylvester Pucchio was about 19 years old when this picture was taken as the Navy ship on which he served crossed the equator. A first crossing of the equator was cause for special initiation ceremonies in the Navy and, apparently, "King Neptune" sometimes showed up for such celebrations.
LONG AGO LIKE YESTERDAY ¿ Now in his 90th year, Rome native and Pearl Harbor sailor Sylvester Pucchio clings to fond memories of his years as a Bluejacket abord the "Wee Vee" ¿ the battleship USS West Virginia. He is pictured with a model of BB-48 at his home on Buena Vista Drive. As a 20-year-old Navy 3rd class shipfitter, "Pooch" helped save his ship from capsizing in the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack. The 70th anniversary of the air assault on the U.S. fleet at Hawaii that catapulted America into World War II is next week. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)
As the march of time reaches the 70th anniversary of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an annual survivors’ observance at the Arthur S. Moran Post of the American Legion in Camden on Wednesday may be the last.
The anniversary gathering for the Pearl Harbors Survivors Association Central New York chapter will be held for the 21st consecutive year at Moran Post, but chapter representatives say the national association is disbanding effective Dec. 31 as its members decline in numbers due to advanced age.
Of the disbanding, "I knew it was coming....Everything isn’t forever," said Pearl Harbor survivor Sylvester Puccio, 90, of Rome, who plans to attend the Camden gathering. Puccio, as a 20-year-old Navy 3rd class shipfitter aboard the battleship USS West Virginia on the day of the attack, is credited in several historical accounts as helping to prevent the stricken ship from capsizing by playing a key part in counterflooding measures.
Puccio is among about four survivors "at most" who are expected to be present at the Wednesday observance, including some from Baldwinsville and Little Falls, said Moran Post member John F. Smith, one of the organizers of the luncheon. It will include a ceremony at 12:55 p.m., the Eastern time when the Japanese aerial attack began against the U.S. Navy fleet riding at anchor at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
It "could be the final year" for the Moran Post observance, said Smith, adding "it could be tough" to continue without the survivors association.
Because of veterans passing away, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association Central New York chapter which includes several counties, has about 14 members
That’s compared to 184 when it was chartered in 1969, said its treasurer, Kathy Schwarz of North Syracuse. She will speak at the Camden observance. Her late father, Bernard Schoen of Syracuse, was a Pearl Harbor vet who passed away in 2000 at age 81 and had regularly attended the Camden event; he was a boatswain’s mate on the battleship USS Pennsylvania during the Pearl Harbor attack.
Puccio noted, "I had good connections in this chapter in Central New York" regarding the survivors association, including being its secretary for six years, and added "I enjoyed that." Puccio said the members are still "going to have some meetings...try to hold things together." He said he was at some recent gatherings were four or five survivors were "able to make it," and at others in which he was the only survivor attending besides association officers.
Puccio, of Buena Vista Drive, has vivid and lasting memories of Dec. 7, 1941 and its aftermath for him and his ship, nicknamed the "Wee Vee."
After the West Virginia had been hit by six aerial torpedoes on its port side, it was in danger of rolling over unless it was stabilized by counterflooding of tanks opposite the side of damage. Puccio and other shipfitters sought to begin counterflooding, but in his area the tools needed were padlocked. Puccio grabbed a heavy crank that was used for spooling cable, and started swinging it at the door which soon separated from its hinges. He and others then found the necessary tools to begin the procedure that helped restore the ship to a reasonably even keel as it settled in the shallow harbor. The stabilizing is believed to have prevented many more deaths that would have occurred had the ship had capsized. Out of a complement of 1,407 officers and men, a total of 106 crew members were killed, including Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion. Counterflooding did not occur on battleship Oklahoma, and it turned turtle with great loss of life.
Also pierced by two 16-inch shells fitted with fins, the West Virginia was evacuated and it sank into the shallow harbor. The shells proved to be duds, but still caused major internal damage. The ship, commissioned in December of 1923, was raised and brought to a drydock for repairs by mid-1942. There, workers found 66 bodies of crew members who had been trapped below within air bubbles in flooded areas. Also found was a calendar indicating that three sailors in a store room compartment had lived on emergency rations and fresh water from a battle station until Dec. 23.
The ship left Pearl Harbor in 1943 for a refit on the U.S. west coast, returning to the Pacific theater in 1944 where it took part in several campaigns, including Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The battleship was the only representative ship from the Dec. 7 sneak attack to be present in Tokoyo Harbor for the formal surrender of Japan on Sept. 2, 1945. For the occasion, five musicians from the Wee Vee’s band were transferred temporarily to the USS Missouri to play at the ceremonies. In 1959 the West Virginia was struck from the Naval registry and sold to breakers in New York City for scrap.
Puccio said he remained at Pearl Harbor throughout the war where he worked on submarine repairs. Of the West Virginia, he "saw her being towed into the drydock," and "I had my eyes set" on getting transferred back to the ship, but was unable to do so. He never saw the ship again after steamed from Pearl Harbor on May 7, 1943. Puccio served in the Navy until 1947, returning to Rome where he raised a family and worked at Revere for about 38 years before retiring.
Today, Puccio "can’t complain" about his health although he has "my ups and downs." He adds, "I thank the Lord everyday for what I’ve got."
The disbanding of the Pearl Harbor survivors association was outlined in a recent newsletter, and is "because of...ages" of remaining survivors and related factors including difficulties in holding association offices, said Schwarz. But she said local survivors will be encouraged to continue meeting socially on a less formal basis, including with the help of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors organization. She is a multi-state district director of that group.
Schwarz will have mixed emotions when she speaks at the Moran Post observance because she will address the survivor association’s disbanding. It will be "hard" that there will "no longer be a Chapter 7" of the association, she said, but "I’m glad I belong to the Sons and Daughters" group. She added, "I hope we can continue on...make sure the men will be never be forgotten."
The 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and time’s growing toll on survivors is "a toast of reality," commented Smith. Whether Moran Post would continue the observance in conjunction with survivors’ family groups is "up in the air," he said.