Russell Argabrite didn't always talk what happened aboard the USS California during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. When he finally did, it made a difference.
The career Navy man and longtime Norfolk resident began speaking out about his experiences in the 1980s to students at Norview Middle School. It came about in an odd way, said his daughter, Martha Cassidy.
Martha's little sister was in the eighth grade in the early 1980s, and one day her teacher was talking about the attack. To the little sister, it seemed as if the teacher thought no one was left alive to talk about it.
The girl piped up: "My dad's still here."
And so it was that Russell Argabrite began making once-a-year trips to the school, keeping up his appearances until the year of his death in 1990. When he passed away, the kids paid him a tribute with a presentation that included the ultimate compliment: A rap song.
"The kids just loved to have him come," Martha said. "They always asked such intelligent questions."
Argabrite always began his story the same way.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, I wasn't much older than you….
Argabrite, who stayed in the Navy for 30 years, retired as a master chief and is buried in Hampton National Cemetery, is one of many Pearl Harbor veterans who came forward share their stories with students and civic groups.
Those stories have gradually dwindled as Argabite and other WWII veterans have passed on, and it may fall off dramatically in 2012.
William Muehleib of Virginia Beach is the national president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. The group fields numerous requests to provide information about the attacks, "but that's not going to happen anymore," he said.
The association will close down effective Dec. 31, said Muehleib. Its members can no longer meet the administrative and paperwork requirements of being a corporate entity and an organization chartered by Congress.
The group has been in contact with Pacific Historic Parks — formerly the Arizona Memorial Association — about maintaining the mission of outreach and education. The parks group is the one organization that most closely parallels the Pearl Harbor survivors, said Muehleib.
"We just can't support it anymore," he said.
The group was organized in 1958 and once had nearly 30,000 members on its rolls. Now it has about 3,000. About 25 belong to the Hampton Roads chapter. Ironically, Muehleib has sensed an uptick in interest regarding Pearl Harbor in recent times.
"With a large part of our lives exposed to military actions now, there's a curiosity about what happened in the past," he said. "We have had more requests for information concerning the start of World War II, and our entry into it, than at any time up until — nobody seemed to care up until the last five years."
Bring it to life
Martha Cassidy became so caught up in her father's Pearl Harbor story that she joined the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors. She served as the organization's national president from 1998 to 2002.
"The intent behind the group is to keep the story alive," she said.
That mission is still doable, she said, but for a generation that grew up with stark images of the 9/11 attacks, what happened on Dec. 7, 1941, must not be a dry and sanitized story out of a history book.
"Children can still appreciate Pearl Harbor if they have somebody that brings it to life," she said. "For me, when I read about it, it's a story I can see in my brain, and it's the same way when these survivors give these talks."
Meeting through the ages
Muehleib worked as a government contractor in Washington after the war. He did business with fellow Pearl Harbor survivors, but he didn't know it until later. The subject never came up.
"To us, it was just an event that we happened to be part of," he said. "It wasn't anything you talked about or discussed."
Sometimes, these reunions happened in the most unlikely of places.
Frederick Crow, who witnessed the attack as a 15-year-old boy, went on to join the Air Force. In 1967, the Williamsburg resident was filling in for another pilot when a missile struck his F-4C Phantom in the skies over Vietnam.
Found by search dogs and captured, he spent the next six years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. It was not a place to be in touch with the world. He learned of the 1969 moon landing through tap-tap communication between prison walls. At one point, he found himself in a room with a man named Al Brady. Brady had served on the USS Kitty Hawk, and the two men began talking.
It turned out that Brady was at Pearl Harbor as a kid, too. Crow — who endured countless brutal interrogations — doesn't remember how the subject came up, but Brady's father had been the skipper of a submarine.
"It's funny," he said, "how we got together in that place."