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Altman: WWII vets to mark Pearl Harbor Day at museum

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Published:   |   Updated: December 2, 2013 at 09:35 AM

The last time I talked to Ed Socha, he was telling me his harrowing memories of Dec.  7, 1941, a date that, if you are reading this, needs no further explanation.

Shortly before 8 that morning, Socha walked from his ship, the battleship USS Maryland, to the Oklahoma, which was moored nearby. By the time he got to the gangway, his launch that would have taken him to church services had left.

“I was standing there looking down the channel toward the pier when the first torpedo plane came over and dropped a torpedo,” Socha, now 92 and living in Sun City Center, told me last year. “I did not know what it was, but I found out in a hurry when it flew over us and I could see the red ball on the airplane. The meatball.”

At first, Socha said, he thought the plane, bearing the Rising Sun emblem of the Empire of Japan, was just a making a practice run. He soon found out different.

Socha ran back to his ship. By the time he got to his battle station four or five decks up, he looked across and saw the Oklahoma.

“It was flipped over on its side,” he said. “She must have taken maybe three or four or more torpedo hits.”

The “communications talker” for Rear Adm. Walter Anderson, Socha took his place on the flag bridge, put his headphones on and began listening.

There wasn't much chatter, and some of what he did hear turned out to be way off base.

“There was an alert telling me that Japanese troops were landing on shore,” Socha said. “They even described the uniforms. Someone was just feeding some bad information.”

Socha was standing on the bridge.

“It was just a frightening scene,” he said. “Shrapnel was going all over the place. We were looking at each other, watching the thing unfold, watching people tapping on the hull of the Oklahoma trying to get people out of that ship. We were watching as the whole harbor erupted.”

If you aren't doing anything Saturday, I highly recommend heading over to Veterans Memorial Park and Rear Admiral LeRoy Collins Jr. Veterans Museum, where you can hear for yourself Socha recall his memories of that day.

There aren't many guarantees in life, but here's one: There won't be many more opportunities like this.

Socha will be one of several veterans speaking at the park and museum's first Pearl Harbor Day memorial.

Also speaking are James E. Kelley, a World War  II prisoner of war now living in Plant City, and Mildred E. Frye, a WWII member of WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services), a program in which women provided clerical and other services for the Navy.

Saturday promises to be a busy day at the park.

Aside from the ceremony, there will be a groundbreaking for the World War II Memorial at the park, anticipated to be the “biggest and most spectacular in the state,” according to Dave Braun, co-chairman of the Veterans Memorial Museum Committee.

“I do not know of any other significant” Florida WWII memorial, Braun said.

“The final price tag will be $300,000,” he said. “The committee has a third of that on hand.”

The unveiling date depends on how quickly the remaining $200,000 can be raised.

“It's going to be difficult,” Braun said. “It all depends on how it is marketed.”

Aside from WWII-related events, there will be a gathering in honor of Ralph Hawkins, president of the Korean War Veterans Association/Tampa Chapter 175, who died Oct. 20.

Hawkins, 85, was an Air Force combat veteran of the Korean War and instrumental in getting the Korean War Memorial at the park underway, Braun said.

*****

Those who serve in foreign lands don't always do so with a rifle or wear a uniform. But they are still away for long periods.

And sometimes, as in the case of Phil Witherspoon, they never make it home alive.

Witherspoon, of Green Cove Springs (near Jacksonville), was 65 when he died Nov. 18 at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

A decorated Vietnam War veteran who earned a Purple Heart, Witherspoon was serving as a civilian Department of Defense contractor, working as the lead comptroller within the Resource Management Directorate for Office of Security Cooperation–Iraq, according to his wife of 20 years, Viola Witherspoon.

“He felt that he had the need to serve his country,” Mrs. Witherspoon told me in a phone interview. “This was his last hurrah.”

She said her husband “loved his job” but after a two-year tour was set to retire in January.

The two communicated every day via Skype while he was gone for two holiday seasons.

When he wasn't serving, Mrs. Witherspoon said, her husband was an avid ham-radio operator.

“He was so smart,” she said. “He had a very colorful life.”

You can learn more about Witherspoon by viewing an audio slideshow created by one of his daughters, Arvie Andaluz Witherspoon, at bit.ly/rememberingphil.

*****

The U.S. Special Operations Command is looking for an artist to paint a portrait of its commander, Adm. William McRaven.

Here is a description of the official solicitation from fbo.gov:

“All labor, materials, equipment, and travel necessary to deliver one 38” x 27” framed oil portrait on canvas of the USSOCOM commander as follows: figure, seated or standing, include backing and mounting hardware. The background will be determined by the government based on the artist's recommendation. The frame shall be visibly similar to the style on display from the previous 2 commanders (see attached photos). The frame should measure 44” x 33”. The artist will contact the designated representative to schedule any appointments with the subject.

“A maximum of two sittings is anticipated for the portrait. Shipping and delivery of the final portrait for placement required by 1 June 2014. Shipping shall either be included in the unit price or included as a separate line item.”

At Socom, portraits are generally hung right before a change of command, according to spokesman Ken McGraw, who said there was no significance to the delivery date.

If I could paint, I would consider this gig, if only to get some face time with McRaven before he sails off into the proverbial sunset, so I can find out more than which are quieter, SEALs or ninjas.

So, if you have the artistic talent I can only dream of, and are interested in painting the nation's highest-ranking SEAL, better act fast.

Offers are due by 2  p.m. Tuesday.

Submit offers or questions to the attention of Staff Sgt. Bryan Russell, 6 CONS/ LGCB, by email to bryan.russell.2@us.af.mil.

If mailing your proposal, please send to 6 CONS/LGCB, ATTN: Bryan Russell, 2610 Pink Flamingo Ave., MacDill AFB FL 33621.

No phone calls will be accepted.

The memorial will be held 11 a.m. at the park, 3602 U.S. 301, Tampa. For more information, call (813) 744-5502.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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