But today, on the 72nd anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Shivers, 93, says the memory is so distant and faded that he has trouble remembering the event that thrust the United States into World War II and changed the country’s role in global politics.
“If not for my birthday, I doubt I would even think about it,” said the Martinez resident and Marine Corps veteran born on Dec. 7, 1920. “It happened so long ago and so much has happened since that now it’s just another day.”
The fact that fewer veterans can recall – or are still living – to preserve Pearl Harbor’s legacy makes the 2013 anniversary a difficult year for local historians.
Augusta Historical Society records show that only three Pearl Harbor veterans remain in the area.
The dwindling number, down from 18 five years ago, has led some veterans and officials to fear that the event will soon be just another chapter in a history book, with no one left to go to schools and Rotary Club luncheons to offer a firsthand testimony of Pearl Harbor.
The concerns also are playing out nationwide.
Once 16 million strong, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of about 600 a day, and now number a little more than 1 million, according to recent U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs figures.
It is estimated that by 2036, there will be no veterans of World War II left.
“This might be the last year that there is a veteran left to share their story,” said Fred Gehle, the coordinator of the Augusta Historical Society’s Veterans History Project.
Gehle said the project began in 2007 as part of an effort to collect the stories of Augusta’s veterans for submission into the Library of Congress’ American folklore divIsion.
Local historians interviewed 800 veterans. Eighteen survived Pearl Harbor. Three are still alive.
“There are very few of us left,” Shivers said.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor just before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, Shiver saw the ambush unfold from the top of the submarine base’s bachelor officer quarters.
Unarmed and with no access to weapons, he was ordered to stay put. All he could do was watch helplessly as the USS Arizona exploded in the harbor and another fleeing ship was struck by torpedoes.
“The attacks on Pearl Harbor were a traumatic event in American history,” Gehle said. “It radically changed our country in a way that the average person today would not understand without our veterans and their stories of sacrifice.”
The two-hour attack sank or damaged 21 ships and destroyed 350 aircraft. More than 2,400 Americans died, and an estimated 84,000 people survived.
The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association estimates just 3,000 survivors are still alive, which is more than can be said for the 53-year-old association. It disbanded Jan. 1, 2011.
Gehle said the historical society is doing its best to preserve the stories of all Pearl Harbor survivors.
Among the stories included is that of Augusta Army veteran Alvin Mays, 92.
As the Japanese planes strafed his barracks with gunfire, Mays said, he and the rest of the soldiers boarded trucks and quickly headed to positions in the nearby hills. He knew little about what was happening, but he could hear the explosions from the harbor about a mile away.
“When they hit the harbor, it was like a hurricane,” said Mays, who went on to participate in six island invasions in the Pacific before ending his service.
Mays said that he did not know that there were any Pearl Harbor survivors left in the area and that he wants to meet them for a conversation. According to the Augusta Historical Society, the third area survivor is Navy veteran Hiram C. “Pete” Cartee, 90.
“I don’t see how America could ever forget what happened that day,” Mays said.
Shivers, who today will receive birthday calls from loved ones, said written artifacts might be all that veterans have left.
“It’s in the history books now,” he said. “That’s all you can say.”