Russ Joslin enjoys history. And when the Navy veteran from Fairborn wants to learn more about one of the most pivotal days in American naval history he simply walks the 12 feet to neighbor Ed Malan’s front door and knocks.
“With him still being here, history is still alive, and that’s important,” says Joslin about his 93-year-old neighbor and Pearl Harbor survivor. “When you read it in a book it’s not the same thing. When you’re seeing it in a movie, it’s not the same thing. It’s not the same thing as having a real part of history with you.”
In a not-too-distant future, the only way Americans may remember the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 72 years ago today will be through written history and Hollywood movies. Living survivors like Malan, who joined the Navy in 1939, are in their 90s now. A vast majority of the veterans who returned home safely from the battles of World War II have since died, and about another 600 die each day according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
As flowers are dropped today into the water above the sunken remains of the U.S.S. Arizona to commemorate the nearly 2,400 American lives lost that day, it’sestimated that only about that many survive from the approximately 60,000 military personnel stationed at Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941. About 16 million American men and women served during World War II, and just 1.2 million are alive today according to the VA.
“Anyhow, I made it. I’m here talking about it today. Didn’t think I was going to be,” said Rolla “Ed” Malan, who was a machinist mate on the USS Preble, a mine-laying vessel stripped down for repairs in Pearl Harbor during the time of the attack.
Malan said some of Preble’s crew were taking liberty in Honolulu while he and others where asleep in barracks when a racket awoke them a little before eight that morning.
“One of the guys got up and looked out the window and said, ‘Them’s Japanese planes.’ And somebody else yelled, ‘Shut up and go back to bed,’” Malan said. But Malan got out of bed and climbed a ladder from a balcony and joined others on the barrack’s roof.
“We sat up there and watched the circus, not believing what we’re seeing,” he said. A couple of Japanese Zeros flew so close overhead Malan could make out the pilots. They witnessed one of those enemy planes getting shot down. The top of the barracks also gave him a view of battleship row and an eyewitness account to the most devastating loss of the attack.
“We looked up and saw the high-flying bombers up there. They dropped their bombs and we watched them come all the way down. They shimmered in the sunlight. Just before they hit, I lost sight of them and the Arizona blew. That was the biggest explosion I’ve seen in my life.”
The explosion Malan witnessed claimed 1,177 crewmen as a Japanese bomb pierced the battleship’s forward ammunition magazines.
“After that I decided to get down from there,” Malan said.
Malan and his crew mustered back at the Preble. He and others tried to get ammunition from nearby ships to load the Preble’s lone working gun. But soon the Japanese attack, lasting two hours and 20 minutes, was over.
The next day, while on alert and issued a rifle in case of a land attack by the Japanese, Malan listened on the radio as President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation in his “Infamy Speech” and asked Congress to declare war on the Japanese empire.
Malan slept with the rifle by his side for the next couple of weeks. Repairs on the Preble were completed, and the task of being a “grease monkey” on a mine-layer in the Pacific resumed.
“From then on it was a bit of everything. Out in the South Pacific I think we hit every island they had: Marianas, Guadalcanal, New Caledonia, and others. I didn’t know there were so many islands out there,” Malan said.
America and its allies won World War II. Japan surrendered in August of 1945 and the USS Preble was decommissioned later that year, four years to the day of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Malan completed his six years in the Navy and returned home — spending just enough time in his native Illinois to retrieve his seabag before moving to Fairborn. He had a long career with the U.S. Postal Service in Dayton and a 53-year marriage with wife Geneva, who died in 2010 and who he “misses every day.”
As Geneva’s health faltered and she had to go to a nursing facility for care prior to her death, Malan moved into an apartment on North Third Street next door to Joslin, 66, who also is a Navy veteran, former machinist mate (serving stateside during the Vietnam era) and a retired Dayton postal worker. The two swapped war stories — including their many years sliding down icy steps and encountering unfriendly dogs and cats while working for the Post Office — over fishing trips, at the shooting range, and while going out to dinner.
“He’s not a pretentious type. He’s just a nice, genuine man,” Joslin said of his friend and neighbor. “He lived through a harrowing time. It’s just an honor to be around him.”
“One of the guys got up and looked out the window and said, ‘Them’s Japanese planes.’ And somebody else yelled, ‘Shut up and go back to bed.’”
Rolla “Ed” Malan of Fairborn, 93, who was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, as a Navy machinist mate on the USS Preble.
For a video of Ed Malan’s firsthand account of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, go to mydaytondailynews.com