About 25 years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a group of men who were aboard the USS Oklahoma that fateful day started meeting annually to talk about the experience, something they had shared with virtually no one, not even families.
This weekend, the last remnant of the group, which has been whittled to five by the march of time, met in San Juan Capistrano for what they believe may be the final time.
Some of them still can’t talk about the attack outside their little circle.
“The past is past. Let it sleep in peace. I don’t find any profit in [talking about] it,” said Ed Vezey, 92, from Moore, Okla. “I was a simple-minded young man. My roommate and I were arguing whether to go swim before we eat breakfast or eat first. Five minutes later, most of my friends were dead.”
Vezey’s eyes twinkle when he talks of his children or the 3,200-mile road trip he just made by himself.
But his eyes go dark when the conversation turns to the Oklahoma. Vezey’s job was antiaircraft gun control. Don’t ask for details, he warned.
One man who did talk—although he was mum on the subject for most of his life, mostly because he couldn’t remember the events—was Gene Dick, 91, of Placentia, the only local of the group.
Dick was a hospital apprentice working sick bay duty on the third deck the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The battleship rolled, and he found himself trapped with countless others underwater.
Before the raid, “my thought was there was safety on the third deck. But that’s where the first four torpedoes hit,” Dick said.
An air pocket allowed a group of men to hold on, and it took five hours to work open a porthole, which was too narrow for most of the men, Dick said. Only five were able to squeeze through.
To pass, Dick raised one arm above him, and held the other tightly to his body to work his shoulders through.
“Some knew they were too fat. They helped us out, pushed us," he said. "They stayed behind [429 Marines and sailors perished on the ship that day]. I had post-traumatic stress syndrome for 68 years.”
After the attack, Dick, who stayed in the Navy for a 22-year career, knew he had served on the Oklahoma, but remembered little else.
But in 2007, a brother-in-law asked if he was going to go a reunion mentioned in the news. Dick looked it up on the Internet, and the next thing he knew, he was in Scottsdale, Ariz., meeting other survivors who regularly gather at locales all across the country.
“Just meeting the guys, it all triggered, and I was able to talk about it,” Dick said. “My family had never known. I blocked out the sinking. … Then I remembered everything.”
Dick said he had been borderline alcoholic for years.
He wasn’t the only one. Bill Hendley, 92, who flew to Orange County this weekend from Wilmington, N.C., said he also drank a lot before he started making the reunions back in the early ’70s.
The memories are hard to confront, he said. Before the attack, he and his buddies, often talked about what they would do when they left the Navy. One had a father who worked for an oil company in South America. That sounded adventurous, and so a dream took seed.
“We were going to go down there as roustabouts. Of course, we were never able to do that,” Hendley said. All but him were among the 429 who perished at Pearl Harbor aboard the Oklahoma.
Hendley also stayed in the Navy. The term post-traumatic stress syndrome didn’t even exist then, so he just continued on in his assignments to Italy, North Africa and other ports.
He tried not to remember, but at night, he couldn’t forget.
“When I’m in bed, for some reason, it comes up in my mind,” he said. He may be 92, but the events are “clear as always.”
The five Oklahoma sailors who remain didn’t know each other while in the service. But they have a closeness and fondness that’s easy to see.
“There’s a bond you just never understand. Even our wives don’t understand,” said Paul Goodyear of Casa Grande, Ariz.
Now, with almost all of them in their 90s – Harold Johnson from Oak Harbor, Wash., is the youngest at 88—it’s time for the reunions to come to an end, they said.
“There are only two us who can walk without help,” Vezey said.
Then again, 94-year-old Goodyear is determined to keep meeting.
“As long as I’m breathing, we’re going to have a reunion,” he vowed.
But just in case that doesn't pan out, these are the messages they hope to communicate.
“My whole purpose is to keep kids aware. Freedom isn’t free," said Vezey, who was disheartened by a recent survey that found some schoolchildren thought Pearl Harbor was where Americans protested British taxation by dumping tea into the water. “We have a job to do. I love talking to young people," he said.
Hendley also expressed his concerns with keeping children aware.
“I feel like we were more patriotic," he said. "The kids today, I feel they need to go back to patriotism. So many kids are more interested in having fun and living the easy life.”
And, for Dick, it's about "duty and honor."
"It stands for something," he said. "They don’t learn it anymore.”