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Dec. 7: Remembering the infamy and the bravery

Francis Coppersmith served in the Army during World War II.
Francis Coppersmith served in the Army during World War II. (Submitted photo, HANDOUT)

It was just before 8 a.m. Hawaiian time on a Sunday when the attack came, 73 years ago to the day. Imperial Japan attacked the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor without warning, their torpedo planes, dive bombers and other aircraft sinking four U.S. battleships and killing more than 2,000 Americans, military and civilians. In a speech the following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, was a date that would "live in infamy," and the U.S. declared war on Japan. Open war with Germany and Italy would soon follow.

The attack on Pearl Harbor altered the course of American history and American lives, and defined the country's role in the world for decades to come. Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day is a chance to keep the attack of 1941 alive in memory, so that it might continue to live in infamy, not just to value those lives lost, but to protect lives in the future, according to Dave Brengle, quartermaster at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 467 in Westminster.

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"I think at that time we weren't as vigilant in our defense as we should have been. The war had been going on for some time in Europe, and we had remained detached from it," he said. "To be taken by such surprise on that day, I think it just reminds us to protect our freedom we have to be eternally vigilant. And 9/11 reminds us of that too, to be vigilant."

Memories of the great conflict that became known as World War II are still alive, most especially in those who fought it. The Times spoke with two local veterans whose lives were forever altered by that attack one Sunday morning over seven decades ago.

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Francis Coppersmith, Army Air Corps/Army technician grade 5, originally of Hampstead

"On Dec. 3, 1941, I was 18 years old and on Dec. 7, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. I was drafted, and I didn't go for another year and then did my basic training and then went to Dayton, Ohio. I was in the Air Force ground crew.

"I was there for a year or so then went to Texas. Then I landed in the heart of France and joined the Army, then into Frankfurt, Germany, with the 60th Field Artillery under [Gen. George] Patton. I was a truck driver, and we laid communication wire for the field artillery.

"We ended up in Regensburg and went to Munich, Germany, and there's where we took displaced persons from the concentration camps back to the Russian sector.

"I was [technician grade five rank] toward the end of the war. In the postal division, delivering mail in Germany. I came out in April 1946.

"[The war] changed my life because I am from a family of 13 children. We lived in Hampstead and I have 12 brothers and sisters, and five of them served. I am the only one that served in WWII. My other brothers served in Korea and Vietnam and all that.

"It was a great experience. When I was there, I did what I did to save our country, and I did my part and I was glad I did. I would do it again if I was able.

"I am 91 years old. I have a grandson that was in Iraq and a step-grandson in Iraq that served two terms.

"It's funny, the war is fought altogether different today ... so many servicemen coming out now have problems. My grandson has problems, PTSD. Back then we didn't have as much of that. We had our duty to do and we did it.

"Yes, it is [still important] to remember Pearl Harbor. ... I hear of all the things that go on ... and it bothers me a bit today. Some troops are being killed and that should not happen and it still happens."

Milton Peacock, Navy, aviation ordinance 2nd class, of Finksburg

"I was in high school. I guess I [heard of the Pearl Harbor attack] by word of mouth, or the radio. That was a long time ago.

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"It's hard to tell how I felt at the time, I was just an 18-year-old kid. ... Bombed somebody on Sunday morning? That's not quite fair. Sunday morning was bad enough, but then a sneak attack? That's probably what I thought.

"I volunteered. I went through some school here in the States and then we got shipped overseas in November 1943.

"My first duty was overseas in Port Lyautey in North Africa, Morocco, about 100 clicks from Casablanca. We were flying a PBY-41, which is nothing more than a Navy version of a B-24. We had different equipment aboard, so different designation.

"[I] flew 25 submarine patrol missions out of that port. I was supposed to return to the States and instead they sent me and the crew and the airplane to ... Devon, England. We went in with Squadron 105 up there and flew submarine patrol missions there. ... Those flights lasted between 10 and 12 hours at a crack, depending on what we had to do or ran into.

"Fortunately, we only had one loss in both squadrons. That was on our first day of operations out of North Africa. We lost two airplanes on the first night, the only losses in the 62 missions that we flew.

"I left England and came back to the States. I was supposed to go the Pacific, but they canceled that, and I was sent to the Carolinas as an instructor for converting squadrons into PBY-41 squadrons.

"Then I went to Maine, and that was an experimental squadron up there, all types of airplanes. I was up there until it came time for discharge in January 1946. I went back into the reserves and stayed there for 10 years, nine months and two days.

"I'm not a hero. I did my duty, and I am proud of what I did. I can openly say that to my knowledge, I didn't kill anybody in the service and I am happy about that too. It doesn't weigh on my conscience.

"We lost one hell of a lot of guys [at Pearl Harbor] and that was not in combat. It was innocent people — innocent military guys, innocent civilians — being bombed and destroyed by the invading country. Whether it be Japan or Brazil or Russia, some sneak attack our country by some outside force; we should remember those things happening.

"I lost a couple of good friends in that thing, it's personal. It's just important to remember things [like Pearl Harbor], just like it's important to remember my wife's birthday."

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

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