Opening up about Pearl Harbor

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 7, 2011 - 7:31 AM

As survivors of Japanese attack grow fewer, their memories grow more important.

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Richard Thill, of St. Paul, often wears his veteran hat and says: “People actually stop now, and thank you.”

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Seventy years ago, Japanese fighter planes, torpedoes and dive bombers formally attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, killing 2,390 Americans and bringing the United States into World War II.

For 88-year-old St. Paul resident Richard Thill, it is an obligation and an honor to keep the stories of that day alive, particularly as the number of those who were there continues to dwindle.

World War II veterans die off at the rate of about a thousand a day. The national organization for survivors of the Pearl Harbor attacks, once with 50,000 members, will be folding at the end of the year. There once were 500 members in three chapters in Minnesota. Now there is one state chapter with 10 members; and only four of those are actually still up and around.

"I go to a lot of funerals," said Thill, who is the president and chaplain of the remaining chapter. "We've just about run out of people."

Thill joined the Naval Reserve at 17, was called to duty in January 1941 and sent to Hawaii. More than an hour before the attacks on Pearl Harbor began, it started for Thill and his destroyer, the USS Ward, which attacked and sank a Japanese minisubmarine near the harbor entrance.

It proved to be the first shots by U.S. forces in the Pacific in World War II. About half of the ship's crew were reservists from St. Paul, mostly kids who grew up together from Johnson and Humboldt high schools. The No. 3 gun of the Ward now sits on the Capitol grounds near the west side of the Veterans Service Building in St. Paul.

Thill returned to St. Paul after more than five years in the Navy. Without a high school diploma, he passed an entrance exam and enrolled at St. John's University, but he dropped out and took at job at Northern States Power Co., working as a lineman for more than 30 years.

For decades, Thill has talked about what happened that day, speaking to anyone from kindergarten kids to high schoolers.

In the past couple of years, though, it has seemed just as important to talk with others who were there. Thill recently met with a former shipmate and, with an unspoken understanding that time was growing short, spoke about things for the first time.

"We went over the war pretty thoroughly and we mentioned a lot of things we had never talked about before," he said. "We really got to feeling a little weepy."

He remains grateful for the attention. Out and about while wearing his World War II veteran hat, people stop him on the street and thank him for his service. At the gas station recently, a woman gave him a card to get a discount on his fill-up.

"People actually stop now, and thank you," he said, his voice getting shaky for a moment.

The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and Fort Snelling National Cemetery Memorial Rifle Squad will host a remembrance ceremony on Wednesday at 10 a.m. on the fifth floor of the Veterans Service Building to honor those who served, and remember those who gave their lives. At 7 p.m., the Minnesota History Center will host a special screening of the 30-minute documentary "The First Shot: The Secret Submarine Attack on Pearl Harbor."

And Richard Thill will be there for both. To remind and to remember.

"It's history and history belongs to everybody," he said. "When you are involved in the history, it's something deep, and when its something like a war, it really sticks with you."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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