By Larry Gage
Special to the PRESS
They’re getting harder to find, literally, by the day. The most recent available figures show that around 300,000 WWII veterans are still with us. They are passing on at the rate of about 300 a day.
The PRESS recently sat down with 99-year old Brownsville resident William H. Flatters, who shared his memories of the event that forced the United States into that world-wide conflict that took the lives of as many as 80 million people.
It was Sunday, Dec. 7th, 1941. It would go down, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the next day, as “a date which will live in infamy.” Just before 8:00 a.m. on a calm and sunny morning, over 350 Japanese naval aircraft hit Pearl Harbor, the American army and navy base in Hawaii, with a surprise attack launched from aircraft carriers 225 miles north of the island of Oahu.
William Flatters had just turned 20. He was at Schofield Barracks, 10 miles northeast of Pearl Harbor when the attack started.
“I was in charge of the branch library. I was on special duty, even on Sunday morning,” he said.
Hearing a commotion, Flatters ran outside just in time to get in the line of fire of a low-flying Japanese Zero fighter.
“(He) flew across the barracks, firing his machine guns,” Flatters said. “I stood still and a ricocheted bullet removed one of my shirt buttons. As he went by, I could see the man’s face, and the big, round, red rising sun on the side of his plane.
“Then the loudspeaker said, ‘All personnel return immediately to the barracks. We are at war!’”
Flatters enlisted in the fall of 1939 and was part of the 8th Field Artillery unit on Oahu. The library was forgotten and Flatters and his unit made their way to the unit’s shore battery on the island’s east coast.
“We left the barracks, passed Battleship
Row, and went on out through Honolulu and to our gun positions at Kaneohe Bay.”
At Pearl Harbor, the devastation was catastrophic. Eight battleships were sunk or severely damaged. The U.S.S. Arizona was ripped apart when a bomb, dropped from 10,000 feet, exploded in the forward magazine and set off a million pounds of gunpowder. Over a thousand American sailors died instantly. The Oklahoma capsized after being hit with at least seven aerial torpedoes. Thirty-two of its crewmen were pulled out when rescue workers cut through the exposed hull plates. Four-hundred twenty-nine of their crewmates were lost. The Arizona blazed for more than two days.
“The water was on fire, burning as we went through,” Flatters said. “You could hear the men screaming. I’ll never forget that smell – a combination odor of burning fuel, burning flesh, all combined in a stinking mess.”
In 1943, Flatters was wounded in the battle for Guadalcanal and recuperated at O’Reilly General Hospital in Springfield, Missouri. He was on limited duty for the rest of the war and, after a 30-day leave in his hometown of Amsterdam, New York, served out the war at O’Reilly General.
“I was back on my feet by Thanksgiving of ’43,” he said.
Flatters married the love of his life, Genelda, on June 14, 1944. They met on a blind date.
“That was the end of the girlfriends,” he joked.
They had a son and a daughter and would eventually have two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Genelda passed away in 2013 after 69 years of married life.
After the war, Flatters went to work for the Veterans Administration, in which job he remained until his retirement in 1976.
As far as he knows, Flatters is the last remaining Pearl Harbor survivor in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. He never joined the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which disbanded in 2011.
“I try to keep them back there,” Flatters said, referring to the memories of that December day, 79 years ago. “There’s only one thing I’d like to do, as far as the memories go. I’d like to go back to Hawaii for the 80th anniversary (2021). If I can make that it’ll be two months past my 100th birthday.”
It would be his first time at a Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremony.
There’s an old American Navy saying; “Fair Winds and Following Seas.” Thank you, William Flatters, for your service and may God bless.