Pearl Harbor and the Vanishing World War II Vet

(Editor’s note: This article first appeared at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

I think often of my late good friend Charles Wiley. I was introduced to Charlie by my Grove City College colleague David Ayers. Dave knew Charlie way back, and the two of us worked to bring Charlie to Grove City College every spring semester for years. Students were enthralled as this larger-than-life, extraordinarily colorful old guy held forth with story after story from his incredible life, beginning as a childhood actor in the 1930s through his internationally known antics fighting the Cold War. His life was so fascinating that at the time of Charlie’s death at age 95 in March 2022, I wrote a tribute to him for The American Spectator called, “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

The title suited the man.

Among Charlie’s best stories related to Pearl Harbor.

When the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Charlie was attending a football game at New York’s Polo Grounds, along with 55,000 fans. At halftime, the stadium announcer curiously read off a list of names of high-ranking military and political officials who were in attendance. The announcer ordered them to “Call your office immediately!” No reason was given to the confused crowd.

“It was not until seconds after the last play that we were told that Pearl Harbor was being bombed by Japanese planes!” recalled Charlie decades later. “Our country was at war!”

Charlie sprang into action. Before dawn the next morning, he headed to the Marine recruiting office in lower Manhattan. There was already a two-block line waiting.

Notably, Charlie was only 15 years old. But he didn’t care. He was ready to fight for his country. When he finally got to the recruiting sergeant, he was asked his birth date, for which Charlie had worked up a well-rehearsed fabrication. The sergeant asked for a birth certificate to prove the date. No luck. Charlie would have to wait until he turned 18, which wasn’t until 1945 (he eventually enlisted and found himself at Okinawa).

When Charlie told this story, his point was less about himself than his countrymen. He wasn’t alone in this desire to defend Uncle Sam, as that long line in Manhattan (of all places) attested. Said Charlie: “As news of the Japanese attack spread, the most vehement of the anti-war activists immediately lined up behind our country.”

I thought of Charlie’s Pearl Harbor story a few weeks ago when I read that the last survivor of the USS Arizona passed away. His name was Lou Conter, and he died at age 102. He was one of only 335 Arizona officers and crewmen who survived the “day of infamy.”

“Guys were coming out of the fire,” remembered Conter, “and we were just grabbing them and laying them down. They were real bad. You would pick them up by the bodies, and the skin would come off in your hands.” The 20-year-old Ojibwa, Wisconsin native managed to stay alive through the long remainder of the brutal war. We finally lost him on April 1, 2024, eight decades after the attack.

It’s sad that these men are gone. Not only are they gone but so is the country they served. Charlie used to lament to me: “It’s all gone, Paul. Everything. The sights, the smells, the feel. It’s just such a completely different world. You can’t imagine.”

We often talked about how attitudes are also different, including the sense of service and allegiance. We wondered whether today American boys would line up blocks-long in Manhattan or anyone to volunteer to fight overseas if the nation endured another Pearl Harbor, whatever equivalent it might be.

Honestly, I don’t think we would. There might be a collective anger and unity for a while, like after 9/11, but I have trouble imagining it holding for four traumatic years as hundreds of thousands of boys died overseas.

We can debate that. But we can’t debate the fact that these World War II vets are vanishing quickly. There aren’t many left, particularly from Pearl Harbor. Guys like Charlie Wiley and Lou Conter are a vanishing breed. This Memorial Day weekend, they’re worth memorializing.