Pearl Harbor survivors live to see 70th anniversary

10:14 PM, Dec 7, 2011   |    comments
  • Ernie Mattson at USS Arizona memorial at Pearl
  • Ernie Mattson in 2011
  • Richard Thill at 2011 Pearl Harbor event
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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- As the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack nears each year I find myself wondering, "Are they still alive?"

And "they" are the US Navy veterans I've interviewed over the years about surviving that surprise bombing of Hawaii December 7, 1941.  More specifically I'm referring to Ernie Mattson of Bloomington and Richard Thill of Saint Paul.

Most of us learned about it in text books, and have seen the grainy black-and-white films of the burning ships in the harbor in the aftermath of the attack.  Hollywood's versions, including films like "Tora!Tora!Tora!" and "From Here to Eternity" and, more recently, "Pearl Harbor" try to capture what it was like to be there that day.

But Ernie Mattson and Richard Thill never had to rely on documentaries or big budget thrillers to glean a sense of what it was like on the day FDR said would "live in infamy." They were there in the thick of it.

Ernie Mattson

Ernie was aboard the USS Nevada, the only battleship able to get underway after the shooting started.  The Nevada was heading out of the harbor, but a heavy onslaught by the enemy planes forced the crew to beach her before reaching open seas.

When I interviewed Ernie for a story in 2004, he recalled seeing good friends blown overboard by the impact of the torpedo bombs and other ordinance.

"When I saw one bomb explode on one side of me and another bomb on the other side of me, I said to myself, 'I've had it'." Ernie recalled.

"I looked up and saw my friend Blake go through the air, flying through the air. I said, 'Oh no!' My buddy hollered at me, 'Ernie help!' That's the last I saw of him."

In summer 2005, nearly 64 years after the attack, Ernie returned to Pearl for the first time since the end of World War II.  He posed for snapshots next to the USS Arizona, and other landmarks memorializing those who died there.

I pitched a follow-up story that July about Ernie's trip, but it wasn't in the cards.  And when the next Pearl Harbor Day rolled around I was assigned to other duties, so I never got to talk to him again on camera.

What fascinated me about Ernie's story was that Pearl Harbor wasn't the only historic event he was linked to, and it wasn't the only hard time he had survived.

His father was killed in the great Cloquet Fire of 1918, and Ernie's widowed mother was too poor to keep all her children. He ended up in the state's huge orphanage in Owatonna, known formally as The Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children.

The orphanage was not always the safe haven people assumed it was. Ernie was literally "farmed out" to a local farm family as a teenager, where he was put to work in the fields.

"The farmer treated me horribly, nearly worked me to death and never fed me enough," Ernie recalled, explaining why he eventually ran away.

"When I got back to orphanage two years later, I actually weighed less than I did when they sent me to live with the farmer. I had lost weight on the farm!"

After an experience like that, Ernie welcomed the stability and predictability of the United States Navy.  He'd been in the service for a few years the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, an event that drew America into World War II and changed the nation permanently.

Eventually I gave up on the idea of telling Ernie's story again on TV, and as years rolled by I began to wonder whether he was still with us.  And then, I turned on the TV last weekend and saw Ernie talking about Pearl Harbor.

Yes, he's still alive!

In fact, according to a report by my colleague Boua Xiong, Ernie is headed back to Pearl Harbor for the official 70th anniversary observance.  It's incredible to me that at age 96 he's still willing to jump on a airplane and help the nation recall a watershed event, perhaps the defining day of the 20th Century.

Richard Thill

I met Richard Thill on another day that defined our nation, September 11, 2001.   By mid morning on the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, people were already beginning to label it "this generation's Pearl Harbor."

Once again Americans were being killed by the thousands in a wave of surprise attacks by an enemy who hadn't formally declared war on our nation, at least not in language we understood.

I was at home on vacation that morning, but reported to work because in the news business it was one of those events we often refer to as "the big one."  Nobody can stand on the sidelines on days like that.

When I got to the station they asked me to find a Pearl Harbor veteran to do the "how does this compare to Pearl" story. I found Richard Thill had been interviewed by my colleague Allen Costantini years earlier, and found his number in the phone book.

Richard Thill gladly agreed to speak to us, and shared his thoughts.  He had been a Naval reservist called to active duty in January of 1941, and aboard the USS Ward the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The USS Ward carries the distinction of firing the first American shots of World War II.  At least an hour before the Japanese bombers appeared in the skies above Hawaii, the Ward had sunk a Japanese mini-submarine discovered lurking near the entrance to the harbor.

A big gun from the Ward is on permanent display at the State Capitol in Saint Paul.  Thill also made St. Paul his permanent home after the war, and spent 30 years working as a lineman for Northern States Power, the utility now known as Excel Energy.

The morning of 9-11 Thill told us Pearl Harbor woke up a sleeping nation, that tended to be isolationist and not overly enthusiastic about taking up arms against the Axis powers on the march in Europe, Africa and Asia.

He said the September 11th attacks, similarly, would probably cause the United States to take a more aggressive approach to terrorists at work around the world, especially those bent on harming Americans.

As we were wrapping up our interview at Richard Thill's home that day in 2001, we overheard his wife Gloria speaking on the phone in the other room.  She had a sense of relief and excitement in her voice.

"Scott's alive! Scott's alive! That's great news! Thank God!"

Gloria turned to the Pearl Harbor veteran in her home and said, "That was Kathy. Scott made it out alive!"

I was more than just a little curious about who this Scott was.

He was Scott Wallace, a friend of the Thill family. The accountant from Woodbury had indeed been in the World Trade Center that morning, on the 63rd floor of north tower which was the first one struck.

Scott's wife Kathy had just called the Thills to let them know Scott had made it out before the tower collapsed, and had managed to get through to her by phone to share the news.

"Would you mind giving us Kathy's number?" I asked Gloria. "Or can you call her back and ask if she'd speak to me."

In a matter of minutes I was at the Wallace house capturing Kathy's thoughts, asking her to relive the most anxiety-ridden day of her life for our KARE 11 viewers.   Later that day my cell phone rang, and it was Scott Wallace himself.

He described the harrowing 45-minute journey down the smoking stairwell of the World Trade Center, and talked of seeing firefighters and police officers heading up the stairs past him.  Scott knew they never made it out alive.

Because I had managed to find the Wallace family, they became the focus of my reports that day.  I handed my Richard Thill interview tape off to a producer to write up for that night's 10 p.m. news.

That's the very random nature of the news business, for better or worse.  If I had found a different Pearl Harbor veteran to interview the morning of September 11, 2001 I wouldn't have been in the Thill home when Kathy Wallace called.

The Wallace story might have made the news in some form, in some media outlet, but my story on 9-11-2001 would've been about 12-07-1941.

When I turned on the TV last night and saw "Pearl Harbor" playing, I started thinking of that morning in Richard and Gloria Thill's home.  I wondered, as I often do on December 7th, if Richard is still alive.

The answer was on my front porch today.

I picked up my copy of the Star Tribune and saw Richard Thill's picture right there on the front page. At age 88 he's still very much alive, and spoke to the Strib's Mark Brunswick about the fact that Pearl Harbor veterans are opening up more now.

On Wednesday Richard was front and center at Minnesota's state observance of Pearl Harbor Day. His smiling face made it to TV screens throughout the day.

My Pearl guys are still here to tell the world what it was really like December 7, 1941.

(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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