‘Day of Infamy’: Lake Tahoe WWII survivor reflects on Pearl Harbor
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — It’s been 80 years since Japanese forces attacked at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base near Honolulu, Hawaii.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed the unprovoked attack, “a date which will live in infamy.”
But while it lives on in the minds of Americans, there are very few alive that witnessed the devastation with their own eyes.
One such survivor is 98-year-old South Lake Tahoe resident, Garfield Ware.
Ware sat down with the Tribune to talk about his experience and his life. He doesn’t speak much but he smiles often and much of his story was told with the help of Dan Browne, president of the Lake Tahoe Veterans Alliance.
Browne, a Vietnam veteran, gave a passionate speech and said history was changed because of the men involved in World War II.
“I felt it very important to keep our living history alive,” Browne said. “If we don’t remember our past we’re bond to repeat it. They are part of the greater generation. These guys saved the United States, because we could be speaking two different languages today if we’d lost the war … It was one of the last times this nation came together, men, women and children, to save this democracy. Garfield is a living example of that.”
Ware chimed in, “and here I am.”
Ware was born on Feb. 16, 1923 and he enlisted in the U.S. Navy when he was 17-years-old.
His ship, the USS Lexington, also known as Lady Lex, was one of the first aircraft carriers to be built.
On that fateful day, Dec 7, 1941, the Lexington had just left Pearl Harbor a couple of days prior.
According to History.com, nearly 20 American naval vessels were damaged or destroyed, including eight battleships, and over 300 airplanes. More than 2,400 Americans died in the attack, including civilians, and another 1,000 were wounded.
According to a Naval History and Heritage Command, “On 7 December 1941, Lexington was at sea transporting aircraft from Pearl Harbor to Midway, in an effort to reinforce the island, when they were informed the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. She immediately launched seaplanes to hunt for the Japanese fleet, and by midmorning rendezvoused with the Indianapolis and Enterprise task forces to search southwest of Oahu before she returned to Pearl Harbor on 13 December.”
The Lexington turned around and headed back to the base. Even though the ship didn’t experience the actual attack, they witnessed the carnage.
“He and his shipmates, along with all the other personnel that survived Pearl Harbor, had to help extricate and deal with the aftermath,” Browne said.
Browne said he imagines Ware’s experience to be somewhat similar to his.
“It’s a luxury to have time to dwell on what happened, you do what you have to do and you move on,” Browne said.
“I remember when the Japanese were in Pearl Harbor and did all this damage, it didn’t bother me a bit, I thought, ‘I’m here, I’ve got to do something,’” Ware said. “I did my duty.”
The site of the attack is now a National Memorial, where visitors can see the USS Arizona and USS Utah shipwrecks and see the names of those who lost their lives.
About five months later, on May 4, 1942, the Lexington took part in the Battle of the Coral Sea, a four-day struggle between Japan and the United States and Australia. According to History.com, the battle was the first modern naval engagement in history.
Lady Lex suffered severe damage and had to be sunk by its crew. About 2,200 crew members were stranded in the water.
“He was bobbing around in the water, shark infested waters, for a long time,” Browne said.
Ware added that even though there were thousands of people in the water, he felt alone, like there weren’t that many. History.com states that 216 Lexington crewmen died.
Despite being involved in such tragic, and infamous days, Ware said he didn’t think much about those experiences after the fact. He said he has lived a long, fulfilling life.
He spent 20 years working as a custodian at the California Governor’s office, where he served under four governors.
“He has a long history of service to this country and to this state,” Browne said.
He has one daughter, two grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
In 2018, he visited Pearl Harbor with his family. The day he arrived, his former ship, The Lady Lex, was discovered fully preserved in the Coral Sea. It still has several aircraft on it that can be seen through the water.
When looking back on that day in history, Ware has one thing to say.
He said, “Well, I made it through and I’m happy I was able to come out of it and enjoy life again.”
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