Last fall when I was looking for a Pearl Harbor survivor to interview for the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack, I met with 90-year-old Bob McKenney at Phoebe Home in Allentown. His daughter Ann Schnur, who had put me on to him, was there as well that day, Oct. 11, 2011.
Bob’s memory was poor, but from talking with him and Ann, I learned that he had been in an Army radar unit on Oahu and knew both Dick Schimmel and Joe Lockard. I had done Dick’s story in my war “War Stories: In Their Own Words” series in 2007, and he lived just a few miles from the nursing home.
Joe, I knew, lived near Harrisburg. He was the celebrity among the three, because his role on Dec. 7, 1941, put him in the history books.
He and another soldier manned a remote radar station on the northern tip of Oahu that picked up a large cluster of planes fast approaching – the Japanese. The two soldiers called the sighting in to the Fort Shafter information center, and Joe spoke forcefully by phone with an officer who dismissed the report, saying, “Don’t worry about it.”
Joe subsequently received the Distinguished Service Cross, testified at Pearl Harbor inquiries and was portrayed in the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!
He and Bob had been at the Kawailoa camp near the Opana mobile radar site; Dick had been at Fort Shafter. They hadn’t been together since 1941. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could get all three together for the first time in 70 years? The meeting place would have to be Phoebe Home because of Bob’s limited mobility – he was in a wheelchair.
The question was: Could I get Joe to come to Allentown?
I called him and he was game, but he said he’d need a ride to and from Allentown. Immediately I volunteered to pick him up and take him home afterward, about an hour-and-a-half drive each way.
The meeting happened as planned on Nov. 1, 2011. I came to Joe’s home in Lower Paxton Township and had my digital recorder running all the way to Allentown. He and I chatted nonstop. His eyesight was bad, and he used a cane, but his mind was still sharp. In Allentown, I treated him to lunch at Wert’s Café, where we sat at the busy counter and had the soup and half-a-sandwich lunch special, which he said was just right for him.
We drove on to Dick’s house in west Allentown, but Dick didn’t answer the door. Oh, no, what’s happened? I called his number on my smartphone and he answered. He had nodded off and would be right out.
At Phoebe Home, all three men sat together in front of me and a pair of photographers from The Morning Call, Harry Fisher and April Bartholomew, plus digital technician Gene Ordway. They shot stills and video as the old guys reminisced. Later, when I took Joe home, he showed me around his house, where he lived alone. It was cluttered with books — he was fascinated by ancient history – and poems he’d written.
My story ran in The Morning Call on Dec. 4, the Sunday before the Pearl Harbor anniversary. Harry’s photo of the old radar men and my story were picked up by The Associated Press and ran in papers across the country. Here it is: http://articles.mcall.com/2011-12-03/news/mc-pearl-harbor-radar-vets-reunited-20111203_1_radar-unit-pearl-harbor-joseph-lockard
I sent Joe half a dozen copies and called him later in December to see how he was doing. “Well, I’m still here,” he said.
Last June, I saw Dick at the World War II Weekend at Reading Regional Airport and he said Joe was usually there in the hangar with the exhibitors, where I was selling my War Stories book. But Joe didn’t come this year. I called him the next week and opened with, “How are you doing?”
“Well, I’m still here,” he said.
I’m sorry to say he’s not anymore.
Joe died Nov. 2, almost exactly a year after I’d brought him to Allentown for the reunion with Dick and Bob. He’d had a short illness. He was 90.
It came as a shock, his death happening so quickly. But when I got over the assault of sadness, I was glad about one thing: that I’d gotten him and his two old buddies together before the end came.