BUHL • Gale Mohlenbrink and Jack White are among the Magic Valley’s last direct links to an event that changed the world.
The two U.S. Navy veterans and U.S. Army veteran Ray Roessler are the last known survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack living in south-central Idaho. Although many survivors surfaced to tell their accounts through the years, more voices are falling silent — the victim of time, as even the youngest servicemen on that day, Dec. 7, 1941, are approaching their 90s.
Both Mohlenbrink, 87, of Buhl, and White, 90, of Twin Falls, are well aware of the significance the public places on round-numbered anniversaries. Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the military base at Hawaii, which was then not even a state. But as the number of survivors dwindles and age takes its toll physically, fewer commemorations include participation from the people who lived through an attack that claimed 2,403 lives and forced the U.S. to enter World War II.
“It was interesting,” Mohlenbrink said in hindsight of that day seven decades ago, “but it was something you didn’t want to have to do.”
White hasn’t been able to be as involved in ceremonies as in years past, but he strongly believes in educating younger generations on what his own went through during a time of global conflict.
"There were movies made about Pearl Harbor," he said at his Twin Falls home on Tuesday, "but they don't tell you anything."
Roessler, 90, of Gooding, is currently at the VA hospital in Boise and unable to speak for this story.
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White spent the length of World War II on the light cruiser USS St. Louis, nicknamed the "Lucky Lou" because it survived the attack on Pearl Harbor while nearby ships Honolulu and Nevada took direct hits.
Following the attack, White said, the St. Louis was involved in several major battles of the Pacific theater, earning eleven Battle Stars on the Asiatic-Pacific Area Service Medal. Battles included the Okinawa Operation and the Solomon Islands Battles.
White has since chronicled his time in the Navy in writing. He isn’t looking for more accolades or fame from his service during World War II. Rather, he wants a written record for his family and something to show future generations, who will only know of Pearl Harbor through textbooks, television documentaries and Hollywood films.
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Mohlenbrink was one of a handful of local authors invited to present their works Tuesday evening at the Buhl Public Library. He answered questions and showed off a self-published book he co-authored with his wife, Onah Dee.
His tale captivated the small group of about 20 people, both authors and audience. His short session attracted many more questions and spurned interest in his memoir.
"It's not a long story," he said, "but it's my life story in the Navy."
Pearl Harbor as a location even served as the bookends of the war for Mohlenbrink. He was there for the attack, and he was there, ready to ship out, when the Japanese announced their surrender nearly five years later.
Mohlenbrink joined the U.S. Navy at age 17 in 1941 and was assigned to the USS Northampton, a medium cruiser.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Northhampton was out at sea. The then-18-year-old and a few shipmates were left at the harbor to perform maintenance on the captain’s gig, a small boat used to travel between the shore and the cruiser. Mohlenbrink was startled out of his slumber, like many other servicemen, by the sound of explosions. Topside, he saw low-flying planes, with a red sun on their wings, strafing the harbor and dropping bombs. The servicemen grabbed weapons, fearing an impending land invasion by Japanese forces, and kept watch through the night and into the next morning.
About 24 hours after the attack began, he saw the Northampton return to the base, unharmed.
His service aboard the Northampton included another event that gained fame for its daring yet successful execution: the Doolittle Raid of Japan in April 1942. The Northampton’s mission was to escort Lt. Col. James Doolittle and his pilots, who took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Mohlenbrink was on watch the morning of the launch of 16 B-25 bombers.
“The planes on the carrier were firing up, and I saw the exhaust shooting out of the back end,” he recalled. “I said to a kid on watch with me, ‘I wonder what the hell that is going on?’ It got lighter and finally it was dawn. I could see the big twin-engine planes. Then they told us.”
The raid on Tokyo was a success, but the Northampton’s fortune would not last. Mohlenbrink’s ship was sunk during the Battle of Tassafaronga in November 1942. Later on, he joined the crew of the USS Edison, which fought in the European theater of World War II until Germany’s May 8, 1945, surrender. On Aug. 15, 1945, upon the initial announcement of Japan’s surrender, he was again in Pearl Harbor as the Edison prepared to depart for the South Pacific. The formal surrender came Sept. 2.
For the longest time, all Mohlenbrink had to note his participation in the war were stories and battle ribbons. Because he was listed as a crewman of the Northampton, which was not in the harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he believed for decades that he could not lay legitimate claim to being an attack survivor.
But through a search of the National Archives, the military’s meticulous record-keeping showed that he was in fact listed as a survivor. He finally received a certificate and a medal, given to all servicemen who survived the ordeal, for the attack’s 50th anniversary.
Twenty years later, prodding from family members led to his decision to commit his experiences to paper, Mohlenbrink said.
“We’ve went to Hawaii with her brother and sister-in-law,” Mohlenbrink said, gesturing to his wife. “Every year, he’d ask a few more questions about my experiences. I really got into the details with them. He kept saying, ‘Why don’t you write a book?’ And I’d just laugh at him.”
In 2010, he self-published a small collection of wartime stories. The project was initially to benefit his family, who wanted to collect his stories while they could. He’s also offered the book to the general public, but he’ll only accept enough money to cover the cost of printing. He doesn’t feel right about profiting off his stories.
The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which had a local chapter until 2005, will disband its national presence at the end of the year. The organization is down to approximately 2,700 members, and it is estimated that only 8,000 survivors are alive as of this month. While the stories of Mohlenbrink and White are a small portion of the overall story of Dec. 7, 1941, it is significant nonetheless.
As our servicemen succumb to age, we lose a little bit of a first-account history from the Greatest Generation.
Bradley Guire may be reached at 735-3380.