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Pearl Harbor survivors gather to share stories, picnic

Published: Saturday, June 4 2011 6:22 p.m. MDT

Max Burggraaf smiles during the Annual Pearl Harbor Survivors Picnic at the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center Gem Court Garden in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jun. 4, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Nobody had to tell the four self-described "old-timers" to smile as they posed for pictures Saturday afternoon.

"You'd better take it quick. We might be here long," quipped 89-year-old Ernal Underwood.

As the cameras clicked, the men traded barbs about their age and looks — grinning and chuckling all the while.

Underwood, of Salem, was one of four Pearl Harbor survivors who gathered with family and friends for a picnic in the GEM Court Garden of the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"You've got to at least be 85 to be part of this group," said Marion Kesler, 91, of Taylorsville.

The annual picnic has been getting progressively smaller, Kesler said, as the heroes who survived Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, succumb to old age.

Kesler remembers the days when about 90 members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association would get together to swap stories and share a meal. These days, association members aren't sure whether they'll have a picnic from one year to the next.

"This could be the last one," said Kesler, who served on the USS Hulbert. "We're getting thinner all the time."

"There aren't many of us left anymore," added Max Burggraaf, who will turn 93 in July.

Burggraaf, of East Millcreek, only has been part of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association for a few years, and Saturday marked his first time at the annual picnic.

"It's good to see old-timers who went through the same experiences," he said.

Burggraaf had been in the Navy five years and was a 1st class electrician's mate on the USS Nevada when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He was in church that Sunday morning when the first wave of bombs hit.

"We were called out of church, and they took us right to Pearl Harbor," he said. "When I got there, the first wave had gone. The second wave hadn't come yet."

Burggraaf recalls arriving at the harbor and seeing ships in various stages of damage. The USS Oklahoma, he said, "was completely turned over. All I could see was her bottom."

Just ahead of the Nevada, Burggraaf said, was the USS Arizona — "and it was sinking fast."

Ken Potts, now 90, was a coxswain on the Arizona and operated a crane on the vessel's starboard side.

"The torpedo bombers came in from the port side," said Potts, of Provo. "At the first moment, we thought it was our own planes. But then when things started exploding, we knew it wasn't."

Of the 2,350 military personnel and civilians who died in the attack, 1,177 were from the Arizona. The ship still lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

A few years ago, Potts returned to Pearl Harbor for the first time since the attacks. Looking down into the water, Potts said he could see the same starboard crane he used to operate bolted onto a frame.

"We hope that all of the young people are made aware of Pearl Harbor, the things that caused it and the difficulties the country went through at that time," Burggraaf said. "We would hope they will learn from that ... so that sort of thing cannot happen again."

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com Twitter: jaredpage

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