Tomorrow at Pearl Harbor, when a moment of silence is observed at 7:55 a.m. to commemorate the start of the attack, Wentzlaff will be there. He will watch as a group of military jets flies above the Arizona Memorial in the traditional "missing man" formation to honor the dead. The Memorial, dedicated in 1962, sits atop the middle portion of the sunken battleship, which is the final resting place for most of the sailors killed in the attack. It will be his ninth trip to the site. He will be accompanied by family members, including his only grandson.
"In the chapel, they've got a big wall there with all the names of the ones that got killed. I look at that and, boy, it kind of shakes you up. Of course, I'm an old man and I don't have any emotion left," he said, his voice breaking for a moment.
The number of Pearl Harbor survivors is rapidly dwindling. Twenty years ago, there were more than 13,000 members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, an organization of veterans who were at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. Today there are fewer than 3,000, said Mal Middlesworth, editor of the organization's newsletter, the "Pearl Harbor Gram." Middlesworth estimates that there are up to an additional 1,000 survivors who are not members. This year, the association announced it would shut down on Dec. 31, because of the advanced age and declining health of its members, as well as the difficulty in filling leadership roles.
At last year's commemoration, more than 100 veterans attended, many using walkers and wheelchairs to get around, Middlesworth said. Commemoration organizers expect about the same number this year, including seven survivors from the Arizona. The USS Arizona Reunion Association estimates that there are 18 survivors still living.
Wentzlaff, who is battling cancer, said this will be his last trip to the Arizona while he's still alive. "The tenth time I won't know it because I'm going to be buried down there," he said. He plans to have his ashes interred in a gun turret on the sunken ship. So far 33 Arizona crewmen have been buried there. The 34th will be interred there with full military honors tomorrow by National Park Service divers.
"I had great friendships over there with a lot of these guys and I kind of feel bad about the fact that I was with them in the last hour when they got killed, and just by pure luck I wasn't there with them," Wentzlaff said. "I'd rather be there than in some cemetery where you've got to go out and pick the dandelions and stuff off. I don't know whether there's any kind of a spirit down there or not, but I'll find out."
Despite his health setbacks, he still lives independently and enjoys playing the occasional game of poker at a local casino. He devours his newspaper, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, every day, his daughter, Mary Flock, said. He also speaks to school and veterans groups about Pearl Harbor, although not as often as he used to.
"I kind of feel I'm obligated to go back over there. In a way I kind of feel guilty that I made it and they didn't make it," he said. "A lot of people said, 'Well, you're a big hero.' Well, you're not a hero. You're there, you have to do your job. And that's about what it amounted to."
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Kitty Bennett is a news researcher and writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.