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Colorado Springs museum provides living history, key connections on 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- Several special events Tuesday at the National Museum of World War II Aviation marked the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the raid that launched America into its second worldwide conflict in a quarter century.

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The museum welcomed three WWII veterans from Colorado Springs who toured the museum before sitting down with the media and visitors to share their experiences; the veterans are in their mid- to late- 90s and are among the few of their kind remaining.

Two of the veterans saw combat and one didn't, but all of them agree that the Pear Harbor attack had a profound influence on their lives.

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Bill Roche retired as a colonel and was an aircraft gunner over Europe during the war.

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"I was shot down twice," he said. "I was at church in Lexington, Kentucky, on Pearl Harbor Day. I had graduated from high school the year before. After President Roosevelt's speech on the radio, people started volunteering and I joined the Air Corps."

Arnold Johnson grew up on a Nebraska farm and was drafter by the Army several months after his graduation.

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"I retired as a Sergeant First Class," he said. "I fought in the Pacific and was in the Battle of Okinawa. After the war, I decided I didn't want to go back to small-town farming. So I made my career in the Army."

Emidie Mazzella didn't see action in the war because it ended before he could be deployed.

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"I retired as a Chief Master Sergeant," he said. "I was just 15 and in Charleston, West Virginia, during the Pearl Harbor attack. I became a weather observer and forecaster. But I tell you, seeing some of the aircraft like those displayed here in the museum, did wonders for our morale."

Another veteran, William Thomas, was a guest speaker for Tuesday's events and said he has done research that provides a surprising revelation -- that Daniel Griffin, of Colorado Springs, was the first casualty of the attack.

Courtesy: William Thomas

Thomas said that Griffin, who lived in a house on Bijou Street that still stands, was shot down trying to take off in his PBY plane, and killed by machine gun fire while swimming to safety.

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"He was a Navy aircraft mechanic," Thomas said. "He wasn't supposed to be on duty that day. He was filling in for a friend. In my research I wondered why he wasn't buried with full military honors until 1947. The Navy, the governor of Colorado and other reports at the time confirmed that he was likely the first casualty. Not many people know that, and it should be a bigger deal than it is. I'm working to get something named in his honor."

Other Colorado Springs ties to that Japanese invasion include James Downing, who was aboard the USS West Virginia when it was damaged, and was one of the founders of The Navigators ministry, based in town.

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"He helped start The Navigators while doing Bible study aboard the USS West Virginia in the 1930s," said Brett Clark, of The Navigators. "Lives started changing and some amazing work took place on that ship. But in the attack, more than 100 men died -- including several Navigators. Jim was off the ship because he was a newlywed but came back after the attack started. He slid down a gun barrel on the USS Tennessee and brought a hose to put out fires on the West Virginia.

Donald Stratton, who died last year, survived the sinking of the USS Arizona -- which killed more than 1,100 of his shipmates. A memorial now rests on the site.

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Gene Pfeffer, the museum's curator and historian. said that it wasn't just the military who played major roles in fighting and winning the war.

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"It was also all of the people who volunteered," he said. "People who served in support positions. Only a small percentage of people in the war actually saw combat. The attack was a tactical victory for the Japanese but a long-term strategic mistake because of the suffering they endured. We need to tell that story."

The anniversary brought Bill Atkins to the museum for the first time, along with his son, Wyatt.

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"I wanted to hear what those veterans had to say," Bill said. "And we should remember the war. People talk about the Civil War as if it was yesterday, but not enough people talk about WWII in the same way."

Bill said that he and his family had planned a trip to the Arizona memorial until it was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic, but plans to visit "as soon as Hawaii starts allowing visitors again."

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Scott Harrison

Scott is a reporter for KRDO. Learn more about Scott here.

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