Pearl Harbor survivor Chester Jankowski, of Swansea, died Thursday. He was 93.
Jankowski regularly attended veterans’ events, spoke in schools and on Oct. 3 again attended the Military Appreciation Day before the Belleville East and West high school football game. He said because he survived it was his job to speak for the buddies silenced that day and to ensure people “Remember Pearl Harbor.”
“It’s important that people know the price of freedom,” Jankowski said in a hoarse whisper when we talked to him on the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on U.S. military bases. “It’s important that they know what happened that day so it doesn’t happen again. I like to talk to school kids about it whenever I can. But my voice is not too good these days.”
Jankowski said Sept. 11, 2001, proved that the United States remains vulnerable to attack and his message remained important. He even attended a Pearl Harbor commemoration this past December just three days after his wife, Clara, passed.
Jankowski survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and went on to serve on ships supporting the invasions of North Africa and then Guam and Okinawa during World War II. He was one of the founders of the Illinois Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and worked on veterans rights issues. He raised a family, went to work for Monsanto for 30 years and lived in Swansea.
The following is a guest view Jankowski wrote for the News-Democrat on Veterans Day 2010.
Guest View: Pearl Harbor reminds of price of freedom
About 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese hit the airfields and they hit us on the U.S.S. Oklahoma. We got about eight torpedoes and we capsized in less than 20 minutes.
We lost 429 people in a real short time. You’ve got to expect most of these guys are young; they’re vibrant, they’re ready to start living. But they didn’t live very long.
I was just a lucky one. I just had my 89th birthday.
When the alarm went off for general quarters, we were told to pick up our life jackets and go to our stations. I was on the port side second deck, aft. I was one of the last ones in the compartment. When I left the compartment, I made it about 100 feet and the lights blinked once. Then the lights went out. I turned around and retraced my steps back to a ladder and saw a light from one of the hatches above me. Well, the ladder was at a 45-degree angle to the west by then, so I crawled my way up it as best I could.
When I came out of the hatch I saw smoke. Fire. Everything. There were figures in there, men burning. You could hardly see because of all the smoke and fire. These bottles of oxygen and acetylene for welding broke loose from the bulkhead and were rolling down the deck. There was so much oil on the water and they were trying to pick up people with boats and the oil was on fire.
Then the Arizona blew up, and I just scooted down the side of the ship as she rolled over. When I got in the water, I swam to the Maryland. There wasn’t that much oil between the two ships. I had some oil on my clothes but not too much. I got on a rope coming down from the Maryland and climbed aboard. I went across her and got on a dredge line and went to Ford Island.
I was one of the last ones off the Oklahoma.
We cut 32 guys out of that ship after she capsized. And there are only two of those still alive today. I was one of the lucky ones.
I went on the Oklahoma with 14 guys, and only two of us got off. It was just an act of God I’m alive. It was such a tragedy. I am very, very lucky. I have a good family. You take what you get.
During World War II, we lost a lot of people because we were everywhere - all over the world fighting the Japanese, the Nazis. Now they send us out to do the fighting but these people don’t realize how they are tearing up the families. Sometimes both of them have to be in the service. It’s not getting any better. We can’t go fighting all the wars in the world.
I’m an old man and I’m not going to live that much longer. I learned a lot, I remembered a lot and I forgot a lot. But some things I’ll remember as long as I live.
I’ve talked to a lot of people, to schoolchildren, about the war. They don’t understand what Pearl is or about this and that. Freedom isn’t free: You’ve got to earn it.