Last year, Pearl Harbor Day was a small and quiet affair. COVID-19 limited the observances to a firing squad that laid a commemorative wreath with no onlookers.
This year, the crowds were back. Though the novel coronavirus still looms, the threat of infection didn’t deter veterans and their supporters from marking the 80th anniversary of the attack that plunged America into World War II.
Dennis Znaniecki is commander of the Peru American Legion and Peru Veterans Memorial Group. He spread the word the 42nd annual event was a go and, in so doing, kept a promise to an old friend.
Years earlier, a Pearl Harbor survivor named Hank Ellerbrock lamented the thinning number of veterans who endured what FDR called “a date which shall live in infamy.” He mentioned aloud the parade might someday be halted, but Znaniecki assured him that wouldn’t happen.
“And I said, ‘Hank, as long I’m still alive we’re going to keep this going,’” Znaniecki said.
Ellerbrock is long gone and Znaniecki said he knows of no local survivors able to march. But other veterans stepped up in their place. Though born two years after Pearl Harbor, Jim Kristapovich of La Salle, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, is regular attendee of the yearly march and wreath-laying.
“It’s very important because it drew the United States into the war,” Kristapovich said.
And it was a devastating blow to the U.S. Armed Forces.
Two waves of dive bombers, torpedo planes and bombers flew over the Hawaiian base with no resistance – an early warning was tragically disregarded – and 2,400 men, women and children were killed in the attacks, which also destroyed nearly 20 ships and more than 300 aircraft.
The massive aftershocks were felt in the Illinois Valley. Znaniecki said the area once counted about 20 survivors including Ladd and Hoby Van Deventer of Streator. A former member of the La Salle County Board, the late Richard Foltynewicz of Ottawa, lobbied for a bill creating a National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
And in 2019 an agency for the Department of Defense positively identified the remains of Controlman 3rd Class Adolph Loebach, who died in the attack on the battleship USS Oklahoma, which was sunk at Pearl Harbor. Loebach’s remains were returned to the Illinois Valley for burial.
A new generation of area residents has stepped up to commemorate the local service members who were at Pearl Harbor. Dave Bartley is Peru City Clerk and a veteran of the U.S. Army who was asked to participate in the yearly observances by the late Bob Ankiewiecz, who thrust Bartley to the front of the parade holding the U.S. flag.
“From that point on I was hooked and I’ve come every year since,” said Bartley, who made it a point to learn more about Pearl Harbor and came away was shocked and awed by the “horrific” incident.
And while Saturday brought sunshine, Mayor Ken Kolowski is among the civilians who’s braved the elements in years past to honor those who fought, served and died.
“We’re back and it’s amazing event for the entire Illinois Valley,” Kolowski said.