Buffalo boasts at least two survivors from the attack on Pearl Harbor, 72 years after that horrific event on Dec. 7, 1941.
One is former Army Pvt. Earl J. Wickett, who briefly addressed the crowd Saturday at the annual Pearl Harbor Memorial Service in West Seneca.
“The biggest thing is, it’s a pleasure to be here one more year,” the 94-year-old Wickett told the gathering at American Legion Post 735. “Hope to see you next year.”
The other survivor won’t be making any speeches. It’s a P-40B Tomahawk fighter plane built in early 1941 at the Curtiss-Wright plant near the Buffalo-Cheektowaga border, and now in England.
This plane may have had a more harrowing survival tale than many of its human counterparts.
It was in a hangar at Pearl Harbor, when the attack destroyed almost all of the 200 American planes. One month later, it crashed during a training flight, killing the pilot. The wreckage sat on the island of Oahu for some 43 years, before it was restored.
The restored P-40B has been flying for a few years, and it’s expected back in the skies above its Buffalo birthplace as early as next August, according to officials from a Massachusetts-based foundation that flies World War II aircraft at public events.
“This is the only fighter plane that survived that day, and of course it survived because it was sitting in a hangar,” said Rob Collings, executive director of the Collings Foundation.
That foundation, whose mission is “preserving the heritage of the sky for future generations,” is attempting to preserve those Pearl Harbor and World War II memories.
“What do we have left to tell us the story of Pearl Harbor?” Collings asked. “Unfortunately, we’re losing a lot of our veterans, the people who can tell that story. So we need to make sure we keep their legacy, their story, alive. We have to do it through the aircraft.”
But America and Buffalo still have another 10, maybe 15 years to hear the stories from the survivors themselves.
Like Wickett, a retired Buffalo fire lieutenant who lives in South Buffalo.
He was a 22-year-old private, heading toward 8 a.m. Mass at a newly constructed chapel that fateful day in Hawaii. The time was about 7:55 a.m.
“All of a sudden, I heard a lot of noise, but it was in the distance,” Wickett said Saturday, recalling that at first he assumed it was just a routine plane maneuver.
“But then I saw a low-flying plane, and I saw the rising sun on the wing,” he said of the Japanese symbol. “Then I knew.”
“I could hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the machine gun. You could almost touch the pilot,” Wickett said in an interview several yeas ago. “It was alarming, very sneaky, very shocking.”
Wickett, a graduate of Buffalo Technical High School, survived the attack and went on to serve with the 251st Coast Artillery in Fiji, Guadalcanal and Bougainville.
He and his wife, Jean, used to attend Pearl Harbor survivor reunions in Hawaii, but those became more difficult to hold as the survivors reached their late 80s and 90s. He’s stayed friendly with fellow survivors from Rochester and Cleveland; his Rochester friend died a few years ago, but he still talks with his Cleveland buddy.
The challenge for him, and others who were at Pearl Harbor, is to keep that story alive for younger generations. As Wickett has said, the slogan for that day of infamy became “Remember Pearl Harbor. Keep America Alert.”
He recalled the story of another survivor who was introduced to a group of students as a person who would tell them all about Pearl Harbor.
“Who is she?” one student asked.
Wickett loves the continuing recognition of the people who survived that day. He hopes ceremonies such as the American Legion’s 26th annual event in West Seneca can help prevent such tragedies from happening again, to help protect his five children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“At this time of the year, you see Pearl Harbor on TV, and you wonder again, how could this have ever happened?” he said.
James E. Manley, who handles public relations for American Legion Post 735, marveled at the presence of Wickett, 72 years after the fact.
“Here is someone who was there,” Manley said. “He’s a treasure, a national treasure, as far as I’m concerned.”
Manley also could have been talking about the P-40B.
The plane is one of 131 P-40Bs built in Buffalo, before it was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1941, then sent to Wheeler Field in Hawaii that April, according to the Collings Foundation website. That October, the plane was involved in a wheels-up landing, forcing it to be placed in a maintenance hangar for repairs.
Otherwise, it probably wouldn’t have survived the attack.
In January 1942, on a routine training flight, the plane spun out of control and crashed into the side of a mountain, killing its pilot and leaving its wreckage strewn across the remote crash site.
In the mid-1980s, the plane’s remains were rediscovered, and the Curtiss Wright Historical Association in California began restoring the aircraft, using some parts from two similar planes that had crashed. The plane was reassembled in the United Kingdom, and thanks to a generous sponsor, it will join the Collings Foundation. The plane will be disassembled, shipped to Florida and put back together again.
“It’s the only combat aircraft flying that survived Pearl Harbor,” said Robert Collings Sr., Rob’s father and the foundation’s founder. “That’s pretty significant, and it’s great that it’s coming back to this country and not somewhere else.”
Plans are ambitious for the restored plane. “Buffalo is a place where we do want to take it for a special event,” the younger Collings said, noting that it might come here in August 2014 or August 2015.
“And this is a plane that probably will go back to Hawaii for the 75th anniversary.”