John Korbel ’60 spent years remembering the aftermath of Dec. 7, 1941

Dec. 7 is an especially poignant date for John R. Korbel ’60 of Naples, Florida. Sixteen times between 1991 and 2012, he made the trip to Honolulu, Hawaii, as a volunteer to help commemorate Dec. 7, 1941 — declared “a date which will live in infamy” by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the Empire of Japan’s attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Territory of Hawaii.

American ships and aircraft were destroyed and more than 2,400 civilians and military personnel were killed.

After graduating from Ripon and being commissioned through ROTC, Korbel served in the Army in in the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii until 1962. He served and lived in the bachelor officer’s quarters with his good friend and classmate from Ripon, the late Dick Celichowski ’60. “Those years gave me the opportunity to get to know both Pearl Harbor, the city of Honolulu and the Hawaiian culture very well,” he says.

Between Korbel’s time in the service, 10-12 personal trips with his wife and his 16 volunteer trips, “I spent a lot of time in the islands and my old stomping grounds at Scofield Barracks,” he says.

A former neighbor from Colorado took a job in Hawaii and became involved with the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Korbal asked to volunteer for the Pearl Harbor anniversary activities. He helped visiting survivors with their transfers to hotels, dinners and activities, helped transport infirm veterans and just sat and talked.

Those were his favorite times, hearing the stories many survivors often did not share at any other time. One could witness those who were aged and infirmed and if asked what they had for breakfast they might not recall.  When you asked where they were and what they did on December 7, though – remarkable clarity!

“If you tried to tell them you appreciated their service, to a man they would tell you they were not heroes. The heroes were the people who were left behind. Those are the heroes – men and women who just tried to do their job.”

Korbel and his wife have always enjoyed traveling around the world, but he says the Pearl Harbor trips were always special to him and remembering what happened is important. “It’s first and foremost and important date and time in our history. It is also important to remember that it was the first time in our history that our homeland was attacked and it forced us to become a nation of strength and tremendous growth, both to supply a war effort and to begin the process of being a place of untold economic growth. We matured as a nation.”

He says the camaraderie that developed between the veterans and attendees stayed with them through the years, and his personal interactions included many veterans, Congressional Medal of Honor winners and author James Michener. It also included numerous guest speakers over the years, including President George Herbert Walker Bush and Colin Powell.

“Apart from my wife, my children and my family life, those 16 Dec. 7 visits are probably the most memorable moments of my life,” Korbel says. “Those moments and the veterans will always be special.”

(Photo: John Korbel ’60, right, with Congressional Medal of Honor winner John Finn)


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