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Pearl Harbor survivor recounts day of infamy, honoring veterans at Mount Diablo beacon lighting

Contra Costa Times - 12/8/2023

Dec. 8—CONCORD — At the ripe age of 99, Earl "Chuck" Kohler is among the last of a quickly vanishing generation that personally remembers the terror that rained down on Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

The Concord resident — who turns 100 in January — is among an estimated 25 remaining survivors of the attack on the U.S. Naval base in Honolulu that propelled the U.S. into World War II when the Minnesota farm-boy-turned-sailor was only a teenager.

"Suddenly and simultaneously, there was a tremendous roar, and bomb fragments, debris and window glass came crashing into the back of my head, ears, neck and onto my shoulders," Kohler said. "Believe you me, folks — something like that can kind of upset your best-laid plans for the day."

After the Japanese bombs and bullets started crashing down the Hawaii island of Oahu, he defied orders to stay sheltered in an unfilled construction ditch, grabbed a 50-caliber machine gun from an ammo shack and attempted to defend against the surprise early morning attack that ultimately left 2,403 dead.

Kohler said he was honored to represent the tens of thousands of American military personnel who have passed on since that day.

"I was a 17-year-old sailor trying to be the very best, most dedicated military man that I could possibly be," Kohler said. "The few of us who are still living are eternally grateful knowing that those who were lost will be remembered because of all of you."

Kohler only began sharing his memories with family, students, history buffs and those in the East Bay community about 15 years ago — with the stamina to rapidly rattle off first-person tales like a deft war-story auctioneer.

On the 82nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Thursday, he recounted the day of infamy as part of the 60th annual National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day "Eye of Diablo" beacon lighting ceremony, hosted by the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors Chapter 5, Save Mount Diablo, California State Parks and CSU, East Bay.

But what significance does the "Eye of Diablo" have to Pearl Harbor, nearly 2,500 miles away in the Pacific Ocean?

The 1920s era aviation guiding light atop the mountain was extinguished during the West Coast blackout following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The beacon was not illuminated again until 1964 when Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander in Chief of Pacific Forces during World War II, relit it to honor veterans who served and sacrificed.

Robert Phelps, a recently retired history professor and the former executive director of CSU, East Bay, said events such as the Concord ceremony strike a challenging balance between honoring veterans' history of sacrifices without allowing collective memories to focus solely on grievances or favorable memories.

This melding of history and memory, he said, is the best way for human beings to grow and thrive.

"The beacon lighting audience has never clouded that division," Phelps said. "I've spoken about memorializing our heroes, but I've also mentioned hard facts involving the war's legacy. You have listened attentively and respectfully, showing that history and memory can be very comfortable partners."

Following the celebration, a Save Mount Diablo volunteer atop the mountain lit the "Eye of Diablo" beacon, which will shine throughout the night.

Alan Kalin, a retired army colonel and member of the Danville American Legion, applauded how the beacon is a way for the community to uphold its appreciation of the nation's veterans for generations to come.

"As long as the beacon on Mount Diablo continues to shine, the heroes of that day will live on in our hearts, in our sharing of history and in the enduring glow of the light that signifies duty," Kalin said. "May we be the stewards of their likeness, ensuring that the beacon remains a steadfast tribute to their undying spirit."

The beacon lighting ceremony will be broadcast on Contra Costa Television (CCTV) several times between Dec. 21 and Jan. 2.


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