As a child, at the monthly potluck dinners at her home, the adults would dance and the kids would play, and sometimes Judy Mihalka would overhear the men talking about “the ship.”
“And the guys didn’t talk (about the war) a whole lot, because they were socializing,” she said Wednesday as she sat at the kitchen table in her Okatie home.
“But they always talked about the ship,” she said. “The ship, the ship, the ship. So I always knew about the ship. But not the war.”
The potlucks continued for years after World War II, Mihalka said, when her father and his shipmates from the USS San Francisco got together at her family’s Washington, D.C., home. But, during those years, she picked up only snippets.
On the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 2016, she recalled how, over the years, she learned her father survived that attack. And how, after moving to California in the early 1970s and getting involved with survivors’ events and reunions, Edmund E. “Gene” McGuire started opening up about his war, and sharing it with others.
McGuire moved from California to Sun City about a decade ago, Mihalka said, and was well-received by other veterans in the community.
“He lived alone,” Sun City Veterans Association historian Arnold Rosen said. “And I visited him one time, and there were three or four ladies sitting in his kitchen eating pastries. He had a great sense of humor. He would joke about going to places to meet girls, but it was just talk, you know. He was a straight arrow.”
Rosen, who organized a team of veterans who visits Lowcountry schools to teach kids about America’s wars, asked McGuire if he wanted to join the cause — he did.
“As I say, (McGuire) loved to engage with the kids,” Rosen, a Korean War veteran, said as he sifted through newspaper clippings. One of the articles had a picture of three children gathered around a copy of The Honolulu Advertiser from Dec. 7, 1941 — “JAPANESE BOMB PEARL HARBOR!” the headline said of the surprise attack that marked the United States’ entry into World War II and claimed the lives of more than than 2,400 American servicemen.
McGuire was aboard the USS San Francisco 75 years ago when enemy fighter planes, dive bombers and torpedo planes roared down Battleship Row and sank or damaged 21 ships in the Pacific Fleet, according to the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command. One of those ships was the USS Arizona, on which 1,177 crewman were killed after a bomb hit the ship’s forward ammunition supply and triggered an explosion.
“I looked north across the channel and saw the battleship Arizona destroyed and sinking in a fiery blaze,” McGuire told Rosen, who recorded the firsthand account in his book “Keeping Memories Alive: Our Aging Veterans Tell Their Story.”
The book tells of a “groggy” McGuire waking up — after a late-night party — to find bullets ricocheting off his ship’s deck, big splashes of water and Japanese planes lining up for torpedo runs. One of those planes, McGuire told Rosen, crashed into a nearby ship.
McGuire and others fought back using whatever guns they had, but most of their ammunition had been removed to prepare for a dignitary’s planned visit. Later during the attack, he ran across the dock to the USS New Orleans, where he and other crewmen fired 5-inch shells at the attackers. They hit nothing.
Mihalka didn’t hear this story until she was in her late 20s, she said, after she and, later, her father, moved to California.
“When I was away from home, because I was married, Dad started going to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association meeting and to reunions of his ship,” she said. “And from there, he and a lot of his buddies just started opening up about their experiences.”
McGuire’s experiences also included his service aboard “The ’Frisco” during the Battle of Guadalcanal. The ship’s crew received a presidential unit citation for its actions on Oct. 11-12 and Nov. 13, 1942. “In the latter engagement,” the citation read, “the SAN FRANCISCO silenced and disabled an enemy battleship at a range of 3,000 yards, sank one enemy destroyer and damaged two other enemy vessels.”
The citation, which on Wednesday rested on Mihalka’s kitchen island next to a stack of her father’s memorabilia, said the ship was “heavily damaged by 15 major caliber hits.”
McGuire was awarded the Silver Star for his actions during the battle. His medal hung alongside his dog tags and campaign ribbons in a glass display case Mihalka’s husband made for him. The case rested on the kitchen island near a yellowed copy of The Greenup (Ky.) News — his hometown paper — from Jan. 7, 1943, which sported McGuire’s picture and told of his bravery.
“After his own battle station had been shot away,” the article said, quoting the citation, “McGuire with conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity assisted in fighting fires in the after part of the ship. With utter disregard for his own personal safety, he rescued a critically wounded officer from the thick of battle.”
McGuire was a vivid storyteller, his daughter said. He could recount everything, “word for word,” that happened. But when he talked about about his shipmates who perished, he got emotional.
When he finally started talking about the war, he didn’t stop, Mihalka said. It was “a release” for him and a way to educate future generations.
In 1999, McGuire told the Los Angeles Times he worried that he and other survivors would be forgotten. He would die just over a decade later, leaving just one Pearl Harbor veteran in Sun City, Rosen said. According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, about 492 veterans of World War II die every day, and there are fewer than 1,000,000 of them left nationwide.
Sometime after he moved to California, McGuire posted a bell — about the size of a coffee pot — near the door that led from the garage to his home. It was a “backdoor doorbell,” Mihalka recalled, explaining that visitors might ring it when they dropped by. And, sometimes, McGuire and his family would just ring it ... just to ring it.
She doesn’t remember the bell from her childhood home in Washington, D.C.
She thinks it appeared sometime after McGuire started attending ship reunions and survivors meetings.
The bell, she said, was from the The ’Frisco.
Her son has the bell now, in his kitchen in Philadelphia.
He’ll pass it on to his child.
So future generations can ring the bell and share stories of Edmund E. “Gene” McGuire, the USS San Francisco and Pearl Harbor.