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They walk slower these days, much slower. A few need the help of canes, while their buddies rely on the steady shoulders of their wives to lean on.

It nearly brings tears to your eyes to see them aged and bowed like this. But not defeated. Never defeated.

As young men, they fought and lived through "a date which will live in infamy," as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it.

Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. Today - 68 years ago.

The San Fernando Valley chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association is down to a handful of active members now, and a few more who keep in touch from home because they're too infirm to make it to monthly meetings anymore.

A few decades ago, 100 men, many with their wives, would have been briskly striding across the grass at Warner Park in Woodland Hills to meet and talk about what they were doing the morning a sneak attack by the enemy drew America into World War II.

Today, it's five men and two wives. All walking slowly. Ninety is just around the corner or has already arrived for them.

Art Herriford, 87, and his wife, Shirley. Joe Mariani, 90, and his wife, Thelma. Joe Ceo, 89, Curly Elliott, 88, and George Keene, 86.

None of the guys wanted to talk about the war. Any war. Not today. They wanted to talk about Leon Kolb, their friend who died at 91 last week and will be buried today at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills - on Pearl Harbor Day.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. at St.Charles Borromeo Church at 10828 Moorpark Road in North Hollywood.

Kolb was 23 and manning a forward gun turret on the USS Oklahoma the morning 429 sailors on his battleship died. It was the second-highest loss of life on a ship at Pearl Harbor. The USS Arizona lost 1,177 men.

When the History Channel did a show on the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the men who were there, Kolb - a retired Los Angeles city firefighter - was front and center.

"When I was a policeman, I ran across a fireman one day who said he knew Leon Kolb, and knew we had been together at Pearl Harbor," Curly Elliott was telling the guys.

"I said don't ever forget that name because Leon was the finest, most caring, bravest person I'd ever met."

They all knew the story of how Leon almost died that day trying to get back to his locker below to save the engagement ring he had bought for his future wife of 68 years, Lucille.

"Leon was fighting to get below, but the guys in the ship's magazine told him to get out of there now, there wasn't any time," Herriford said.

"It saved his life. None of the men in the magazine survived that day. Leon didn't get the ring, but he did get the girl."

How are they doing, I ask the guys. They all smile, trying to be nice. How are they doing? They're all fighting bodies that are slowly giving out on them. How the hell do you think they're doing?

"We can't remember what we had for dinner yesterday, but we still remember that day," says Mariani, who's fighting cancer.

It's been a pretty good month, Elliott says. They were invited to be in the San Fernando Veterans Day Parade, and for a couple of hours it reminded them that people still remember what they did when they picked themselves up from the utter destruction at Pearl Harbor, and went on to win a war that saved the world.

"I was cutting across the parking lot after the parade when a little kid stopped me," Elliott said. "His mother was standing behind him. He asked if he could shake my hand.

"I looked at her and her hands were shaking. She had a tear in her eye."

Keene still gets a lot of waves and thumbs up when he drives down the street and people see his Pearl Harbor Survivor license plate.

"I was at Denny's paying my bill when the guy behind me in line patted me on the back," Herriford said. "He had been looking at my Pearl Harbor cap.

"He reached over to shake my hand, then grabbed my check. 'This is on me,' he said."

Time is running out on the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, and the guys know it. When they go, will the day go with them?

How do they help ensure Roosevelt's words will mean something to a whole new generation of kids who will never see these men march in parades and have the chance to shake their hands?

Herriford, the national vice president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association - down to about 3,000 men nationally - had some news for his local chapter.

When the association can no longer function, its assets would be given in a merger with the Arizona Memorial Museum Association at Pearl Harbor.

"We're thinking 2010 to wrap it up, other than to get together on a social basis," Herriford said.

The money from investments the association has made over the years would go for educational purposes - to pay for the trips of students and teachers to visit the Arizona Memorial, and get a live history lesson on "the date which will live in infamy."

Maybe a nice plaque at the entrance dedicated to the men and wives of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, so they will never be forgotten.

The men nodded and shook hands before slowly walking back to their cars Friday.

"I'll see you at Leon's funeral," Mariani said.

Yeah, see you there, his buddies replied.,





(color) From left, Joe Mariani, Curly Elliott, Joe Ceo, George Keene and Art Herriford are members of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

Dean Musgrove Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 7, 2009
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