Mickey Ganitch is an old man now because all the members of his generation are old men, their ranks thinning daily, their stories of World War II and its history dying with them.
But spend a few minutes with Ganitch, a Navy veteran who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and who turns 100 on Thursday, and you quickly understand that he will be keeping that history alive, telling stories, cajoling, even singing about it, until his last breath (which he doesn’t plan on taking any time soon).
Of the 16 million Americans who served in the war, Ganitch is one of roughly 392,000 who are still alive, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. They die at a rate of about 300 a day. He will share his Pearl Harbor story on Veteran’s Day at a ceremony aboard the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda at 11 a.m. Good luck keeping your eyes dry.
He may start by explaining why he was in a football uniform the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the first Japanese Zeros screeched over his ship, the battleship USS Pennsylvania, and pulled America into war.
“I was just a country boy from Ohio,” Ganitch, of San Leandro, said recently. “I was on the ship’s football team. We were supposed to play the USS Arizona that afternoon, and we were going out to scrimmage.”
He and others had gathered below deck. A phone rang. Ganitch grabbed it. ‘“The Japanese are attacking!”’ someone on the line shouted. “Don’t kid around!” Ganitch replied. Then the ship shuddered. “Some of the guys on the deck were shooting before we even knew the war had started,” he said.
It was a war Ganitch had feared but wanted to fight. He’d joined the Navy 10 months earlier. Growing up in northeast Ohio, one of 14 children, he’d followed how the European powers had ignored the Treaty of Versailles and appeased Adolf Hitler, allowing him in the 1930s to rearm Germany, occupy the Rhineland, and seize Austria and parts of what is now the Czech Republic. He followed, too, Japanese aggression in Asia. That the world would erupt in war against fascism seemed inevitable. Now it had.
Alarms rang. Ganitch knew where he had to go: the ship’s crow’s nest. He was exposed as he climbed above the ship’s superstructure. Some of the handholds were already pierced by enemy fire.
“I was in my football uniform at my battle station in the crow’s nest,” he said. He grabbed a telephone to direct anti-aircraft fire. He saw a plane in the distance headed for the ship. He shouted its location into the phone. Below him, he saw guns swing around in the direction of the attacker, lining it up. It came into range. Gunners blew it out of the sky.
“They got him,” Ganitch said, sitting behind at a desk at Oakland’s Veterans’ Memorial Building, in a garrison cap and Hawaiian shirt. “I did my part. I did what I could do.”
The Pennsylvania, a dreadnought launched in 1915, was in dry dock for repairs. There, torpedo bombers that sank the battleships Oklahoma and Utah couldn’t hit her. But dive-bombers that sank the Arizona and California, and damaged other ships, could.
A 500-pound armor-piercing bomb hit the Pennsylvania’s deck. It detonated near her magazine — where ammunition is stored. It was the only bomb that struck her. Fifteen of Ganitch’s shipmates were killed, 14 were missing.
On business cards that Ganitch hands out, he identifies himself not as a WW II veteran, but a Pearl Harbor Survivor, one who made it through two waves of Japanese attacks. There wasn’t a third because American aircraft carriers, which the enemy expected to find at Pearl Harbor, were out to sea.
Ganitch believes that had the enemy returned a third time, all of the Naval base at Pearl Harbor and large stores of fuel would have been destroyed. Ships would have had to sail to the U.S mainland for repairs.
“We’d have lost the war,” he said. “The enemy could not have been stopped.’’
Although Pearl Harbor defines him, Ganitch’s war had only just begun on Dec. 7, 1941. The Pennsylvania was repaired and had a lot of fight left in her. She was old and slow, “barely able to make 15 knots going downhill,” Ganitch said, but her 12 14-inch guns packed a wallop, and she provided artillery fire as U.S. forces island-hopped their way across the Pacific.
She would not escape the rest of the war unscathed. Not long before the Japanese surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, Ganitch wandered up to the deck one night to write a letter to one of his sisters. In the distance a plane was coming toward the ship with its lights on — a sign it was an allied aircraft.
“No one fired a shot,” he said. But it was not a friendly plane; it was an enemy torpedo bomber trying to sneak close. Its torpedo hit a portion of the ship where Ganitch had just been. “I lost 20 of my 26 men,” he said. Days later, the war ended.
Ganitch refuses to let Pearl Harbor be forgotten. He enjoys going to schools and telling youngsters about the war and has already scheduled talks into next year as far out as Memorial Day.
“You can’t ignore what happened in the past if you want to look for the future,” he said.
Remember seems to be his favorite word. He even sings about it, and don’t be surprised if he breaks into a song on Veteran’s Day that was written and made popular by Sammy Kaye after the attack.
Remember Pearl Harbor, As we go to meet the foe
Remember Pearl Harbor, As we did the Alamo
We will always remember, How they died for Liberty
Let’s remember Pearl Harbor, And go on to victory
Bay Area Veterans Day events
San Jose Veterans Day Parade, 11 a.m. Begins at Hwy. 87 at Santa Clara Street, proceeds along Market Street and ends at San Carlos Street.
Milpitas Veterans Day ceremony, 9 a.m., Veteran’s Plaza at City Hall.
Redwood City Veterans Day ceremony, 11 a.m., Courthouse Square.
Pleasant Hill Veterans Day celebration, 11 a.m. Pleasant Hill Park.
Walnut Creek Veterans Day ceremony, 11 a.m. Lesher Center for the Arts.
Oakland Veterans Day ceremony, 11 a.m. Frank Ogawa Plaza
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