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Almost gone but not forgotten: Only 2 original members remain of Prescott's Pearl Harbor Survivors

Doug Cook/The Daily Courier

Doug Cook/The Daily Courier

Seventeen years ago, more than a dozen World War II veterans formed the Prescott chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in remembrance of Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack on the U.S. Navy fleet in Hawaii.

The contingent met regularly for meetings during its inception. But now only a pair of its original members still lives here, while the others have either moved away or died.

As the nation honors those in the Armed Forces who perished at Pearl Harbor 68 years ago today, plunging America into World War II, the memories of those who survived are fading rapidly.

The two Prescott-based survivors - Frank Murphy, 92, and Bill Lyon, 86 - are not just losing their ability to share their stories. They're also facing serious medical hardships.

Murphy is nearly deaf, and this past week doctors released him from the Bob Stump Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Prescott for another ailment. Perhaps understandably, he was unavailable for comment.

On Thursday, Lyon learned he has terminal cancer in his esophagus and liver and may not live much longer. His wife, Connie, feeds him and dispenses his pain medication at their Prescott Valley home.

***

In the 1930s, several years before WWII, Murphy was living in Phoenix, riding in rodeos and making a fair living at it. But during the winter of 1937-38, jobs were scarce. He wanted to join the Army and become a cavalryman so he could continue riding horses.

He passed all of the Army's exams. However, to be in the cavalry, he had to pay his own way for training at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

Disgusted, Murphy enlisted in the Navy, knowing he could at least ride something - a ship.

In January 1938, the Navy put him on a train to San Diego, where he became an apprentice seaman at age 20.

Three years later, Murphy sailed to Hawaii on the destroyer U.S.S. Phelps, where it was stationed at nearby Pearl Harbor. By the spring of 1941, annual leave was due to him, but he wasn't set to return to the states until December.

Murphy and a friend, Clinton Zachary, were set to head out of Pearl Harbor on a bus to Honolulu the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when they "idly glanced at a group of planes flying in unusually low," he wrote in "Boot to Tin Can Sailor," an unpublished biography his wife, Betty, helped him write 20 years ago.

They thought, "Sunday is a hell of a day to practice, but that's the Navy for you."

Only this was no drill. The Japanese were flying their fighter planes in low and bombing the base and the U.S. ships docked there.

"All at once it struck us - the U.S.S. Oklahoma listed unnaturally, and its boats were falling off the boat deck," Murphy wrote. "Smoke began to fill the sky, too."

Three machine gun bullets tore into Murphy's lower right leg as he and Zachary ran for cover. After a medic bandaged him, Murphy and his buddy climbed in an empty whaleboat and rescued an untold number of sailors from the water.

During the rescue, a direct hit on the nearby U.S.S. Arizona sent a huge fireball into the sky, which burned off Murphy's hair, eyebrows and eyelashes.

"The water, black and murky with oil and debris from the damaged ships, and the sky filled with black, choking smoke from the fires, made it seem like Hell, only we were still alive," Murphy wrote. "How we slept, or whether we slept that night escapes my mind entirely. Time seemed to stand still after the awful event of December 7th."

Murphy later went back to the U.S.S. Phelps, which was spared in the attack, and continued serving in the war - having quickly forgotten about his plans to return home to Arizona. Ultimately, he stayed in the Navy for 22 years. He didn't move to Prescott until 1961, where he has lived ever since.

***

In the early 1940s, Lyon was living in Buckeye when he joined the Navy at age 17. He trained in San Diego for six weeks before boarding the light cruiser U.S.S. Detroit, which left for Pearl Harbor in June 1940.

Lyon, who was transferred to a submarine base for torpedo school before the attack, said he remembered eating a big ham steak on Dec. 7, 1941, when whistles started blowing, and sirens and bugles sounded.

"I went outside and the bombs were dropping," Lyon, who also witnessed the U.S.S. Arizona explosion, said from his Prescott Valley home this past Thursday. "When the war started, I had a feeling as though God had just reached down and put his arms around me and said, 'Don't worry, my son, I'll protect you.'"

Lyon added that he spent the next four years, until 1945, never seeing "any really bad action" in WWII.

In 1991, on the 50th anniversary of the attack, Lyon received a "Remember Pearl Harbor" medal from the governor's office at a ceremony in Phoenix.

***

Shortly after Lyon received the medal, a bunch of local men who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor decided to form the Prescott PHSA.

Murphy once served as the group's president, which held its first meeting in Prescott on March 11, 1992, with 27 attendees, including guests.

Three or four years ago, he stopped attending the group's meetings. Betty said Frank's hearing began failing him and he became frustrated that he couldn't communicate well.

Lyon is the current president, but his cancer diagnosis will likely prevent him from staying active. A limited number of Pearl Harbor survivors still live in Prescott, and a couple of them attended the Prescott PHSA's annual Christmas lunch this past Wednesday.

"I have a deep interest in keeping the memories alive of Pearl Harbor through the PHSA," Lyon said. "Young people should know what happened that day."

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