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December 19, 2014

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As numbers dwindle, members age, local Pearl Harbor Survivors Association calls it quits

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Leila Navidi

Pearl Harbor survivors pose for photos with a cake during the last meeting of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Silver State Chapter Two at the Grand Cafe at Boulder Station in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 13, 2012. From left is William E. Simshauser, president Clifton Dohrmann, Hall Lalone, Joseph Honish and Ira Schab.

Pearl Harbor Survivors

President Clifton Dohrmann speaks to the group during the last meeting of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Silver State Chapter Two at the Grand Cafe at Boulder Station in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 13, 2012. Launch slideshow »

William Simshauser was only 19 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The fight that ensued that Sunday morning, which drastically shaped United States history and compelled the country to enter World War II, was Simshauser’s first real combat experience.

“I was pushing rifle shells out of a machine gun belt and handing them individually to my friend,” Simshauser said. “There were three Japanese airplanes firing at us. All that saved us was a hill behind us. They had to pull up (for) the hill, and we were in the armor shack.”

Back then the U.S. Air Force was the U.S. Army Air Corps, and Simshauser was stationed at Bellows Air Field, inland from Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

Narrowly escaping a burning gas tank near him, Simshauser said he looked to his lieutenant and will never forget what the officer said.

“He says, ‘Sit here kid and watch the show, there ain’t nothing you and I can do.’ ”

Now 90 years old, Simshauser is one of an estimated 2,000 living Pearl Harbor survivors. He is also one-fifth of the remaining membership of the Las Vegas chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

The group has met religiously since 1972, starting in a room at the Desert Inn with about 60 members, most of whom have now died or are physically unable to attend meetings.

But Tuesday morning the group’s five members, Simshauser, Clifton Dohrmann, 90, Ira Schab, 91, Hal Lalone, 88, and Joseph Honish, 91, and their wives, along with Betty Gillett, the widow of a Pearl Harbor survivor, gathered at the Grand Café at Boulder Station Casino for their last meeting.

At the meeting, the American flag and the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association flag stood tall behind Dohrmann, the Las Vegas chapter president. Some of the members wore garrison caps, others wore ballcaps, all of them displaying the group’s name.

At the end of the lunch, the local chapter was retired — just months after the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association closed its doors for good.

The attack more than 70 years ago has brought the survivors together, said Dana Harbaugh, 50, an “honorary member” of the association. Along with an oath to defend the Constitution, association members “swear to remember Pearl Harbor.”

“The national organization basically started with a couple of guys who had the idea to get all the survivors together as a club,” said Harbaugh, a Navy veteran who has accompanied members to memorial sites, parades and has even gone to Pearl Harbor four times for special events.

In his 12 years as an honorary member in Las Vegas and San Diego, Harbaugh said he has accumulated more than 35,000 photos of survivors.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said Tuesday. “It’s been an incredible honor to work with these guys, but at the same time I understand they are getting old. It’s an incredible standard that they’ve set for all other veteran groups who pride themselves in trying to remember either their unit or a battle or a particular war.”

The five, survivors of a projected 40,000 Americans attacked that December morning, spent the lunch meeting sipping coffee and enjoying each other’s company.

Each received a crisp $5 bill to pay for part of their lunch, the last remaining money from the chapter’s bank account, which had to be closed.

Dohrmann was a U.S. Navy mechanic working on PBY Catalina flying boats during the attack.

The 90-year-old said he’s sorry to see the survivors association end, partly because it evokes a fear of the end of his life, but mainly for what it represented.

“It’s been a good thing for the public — to be reminded of all the things that Pearl Harbor stood for,” Dohrmann said. “That was for America and the people who make up America. A lot of people aren’t aware of the fact that that war was not won just by military people. It was won by American civilians.”

He recalls the attack, where a “kid” running alongside him was practically split in half. Within an hour, Dohrmann’s squadron was down to only three of its 36 planes. Dohrmann, however, also remembers something else about the tragic event.

“We had to have everything replaced and if the American civilians hadn’t jumped on the bandwagon, we would never ever have won that war,” he said. “They replaced all of the planes that we lost, rebuilt new ships, new ammunition plants, and everybody in America went to work. To me that was the highlight.”

He explained to the other four members that they still would be able to participate in parades for veterans, adding they still would get to carry their flag.

The men were cheerful, talking among themselves and joking about their age. They acknowledged they were the lucky ones, the “hangers-on.”

“I know, like everything else, there comes a time when everything ends,” Dohrmann said. “We’ve enjoyed it … and this is our final gesture. We’re not doing bad.”

“We’ve got five.”

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