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Utah's final four Pearl Harbor survivors

Published: Monday, Dec. 20 2010 12:33 a.m. MST

Pearl Harbor survivor Ken Potts, 89, of Provo, is one of only 20 USS Arizona crew members who are still alive.

Brendan Sullivan, Deseret News

TAYLORSVILLE — Amy Caywood wanted Grandpa to go back to Pearl Harbor for one more commemoration.

Marion Kesler, stationed at Pearl Harbor 69 years ago as a cook on the USS Hulbert, was present in Hawaii in 1991 and 2006 to commemorate previous anniversaries of Japan's 1941 ambush attack. The 91-year-old's deteriorating mobility had made it painfully apparent that 2010 would be his last best chance for a final pilgrimage to Hawaii. So several months ago Caywood cajolingly convinced her maternal grandfather to return to Pearl Harbor this year for one final on-site commemoration on Dec. 7.

Together with his wife, daughter and assorted grandchildren, Kesler traveled to Pearl Harbor earlier this month. Joining the Taylorsville resident at the ceremony marking the 69th anniversary were 128 of his fellow Pearl Harbor survivors, a group that today is comprised of approximately 2,000 living veterans.

"It felt really good in my heart to go back again," Kesler said. "It's always good to get a warm reception from the people there."

This year's Dec. 7 anniversary of "the day that will live in infamy" marked the first time in decades that no Pearl Harbor memorial was held in the Beehive State to honor the surviving veterans and their fallen comrades — no bugles playing taps; no bells tolling for the deceased; no reading of the names of those killed in combat.

"This is the only year that we didn't do anything," said 89-year-old Ken Potts of Provo, one of only 20 surviving crewmen of the USS Arizona. "We're getting to where there are hardly any of us left."

The cessation of Dec. 7 commemoration ceremonies in Utah is no big surprise given the waning numbers of Pearl Harbor survivors that Potts references and the increasingly frail health of those who do remain. It's a circumstance that was long foreseen, but its inevitability does nothing to detract from the sense of loss that comes with watching an annual tradition fade into the annals of history.

"I think (Pearl Harbor) will be remembered less and less each year," said Max Burggraaf, a 92-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor living in Salt Lake City. "That's happening already. I doubt if it's taught in school. My own children and grandchildren have a book about my life which I've written that reminds them, but I don't think anybody else hardly knows about it."

Only four active members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association remain in Utah: Ralph Wadley of Salt Lake City joins Kesler, Potts and Burggraaf in that distinction. The Utah chapter of PHSA hangs on the precipice of closure; with the next passing of one of its members it will violate organizational bylaws requiring an active chapter to fill a four-person leadership panel with different members serving as president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.

The day when Utah's PHSA chapter forever closes may come sooner than later. Potts maintains a lifestyle vivaciously befitting someone 20 years his junior. ("The last physical examination I had was when I came out of the Navy in 1945," Potts pronounced. "I don't have any restrictions on my driver's license, don't even have to have glasses.") Kesler and Burggraaf both live in their own homes, remaining fairly active and relatively healthy. Kesler still drives occasionally, and it was only in June that Burggraaf yielded his driver's license and sold his fishing boat because of failing eyesight. But chapter president Wadley is recently bedridden and under hospice care; his prognosis hangs in the balance.

While the chapter still survives, Caywood will do what she can to prolong the end of an organization that enhances her grandfather's life. Shortly after returning from Hawaii, she sat down with Kesler and combed through his roster of Utah's PHSA members, seeking to ascertain whether any are still living but no longer attending meetings. There's also the hope that perhaps there are still Pearl Harbor survivors who just haven't heard of PHSA — a circumstance that applied to Burggraaf, who only joined PHSA in the past few years.

"It's like we're looking under rocks (for more survivors)," Caywood said. "It's really hard when you watch something this important to your family fading away because the people who were there are getting older and not able to get around to things like they used to."

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