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Local vets remember Pearl Harbor

TAMPA — On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Ed Socha and Bill Monfort were several hundred miles away from each other, sharing a horrible moment of reckoning.

Socha, 96, was at Pearl Harbor, aboard the USS Oklahoma. Bill Monfort was a radio operator aboard the destroyer USS Mahan, which was 800 miles to the west.

Socha saw the Japanese planes roar overhead and drop bombs.

Monfort took the radio call from Pearl Harbor.

"This is not a drill," Monfort recalls hearing.

"I knew we were at war," Socha said.

Thursday morning, 76 years later, Socha and Monfort were together among about a dozen World War II veterans honored at the Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park and Leroy M. Collins Museum.

"I am so glad they are doing this," Socha said. "People have forgotten about Pearl Harbor."

• • •

They remember it at the park, which has memorials to several conflicts.

Aside from commemorating the events that led to the U.S. entry into World War II, park officials also dedicated a new memorial to the entire war. It has granite walls etched with the names of the 510 Hillsborough County residents who died between Pearl Harbor Day and Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally surrendered.

"This is outstanding," said Leonard Black, 90, a World War II veteran from Lutz who along with Vietnam War veteran Dave Braun spent the past three years working to get the memorial built. "This is a wonderful day."

Thursday also marked the opening of the county’s Veterans Resource Center.

The 8,000 square-foot building is the new home for the county’s Consumer & Veterans Services, and includes a multipurpose room for training and special events. The facility provides local veterans — who number more than 98,000 in Hillsborough — with a one-stop shop for services, including accessing federal, state and local benefits. There is never a charge for help.

Funding for the $2.2 million facility included approximately $1.9 million in grants from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

"This is a pinnacle of my career," said Frank Strom, a retired Marine first sergeant and the county’s director of consumer and veterans affairs.

•••

Socha was 20 when he stood on the quarterdeck of the Oklahoma.

"I was getting on a boat to go to shore to church, but I missed it," he said. "I was looking down the channel and I see the first airplane fly right over me and he dropped something. If he had machine guns instead of a torpedo, I would have been gone."

After that, an ensign came running down the deck, telling Socha to sound the alarm.

After returning to his ship, the USS Maryland, he ran to his battle station and watched the horror unfold.

The Oklahoma, which had been hit by torpedoes, was flipped over, Socha said. The entire harbor was aflame. Small boats motored around picking up survivors and bodies. Men worked frantically to cut holes in the hull of the Oklahoma after hearing tapping.

Only a few dozen sailors were pulled out alive. More than 400 died.

"It is something I will never forget," Socha said.

Monfort was two days out of Pearl Harbor and had just finished breakfast when he manned the radio shortly before 8 a.m.

"I copied the message," he said. "Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill."

"It has to be the Japanese," he recalls thinking. "No one else could do that."

The Mahan was accompanying the aircraft carrier Lexington on the way to drop off Marine aircraft at Midway Island. They turned around and began searching for the ships that struck Pearl.

"It’s a good thing we didn’t find them," Monfort said. "They had six carriers, we had two."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

 
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