They witnessed firsthand America's entry into World War II. And for many it was a baptism of blood.

As a writer at The Californian since the mid-1990s, I have had the honor and privilege of writing about them over the decades.

I'm talking about local survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which was launched on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, 77 years ago Friday. When it was over, more than 2,400 Americans lay dead and a large portion of the Pacific fleet was left damaged or destroyed.

On one battleship alone, the USS Arizona, 1,177 men were lost when the hulking vessel capsized and sank in minutes. At nearby Hickam Field and other air bases, 347 aircraft were damaged or destroyed, most without ever leaving the tarmac.

Across the United States, millions of Americans were suddenly shaken from their support of an isolationist foreign policy, a legacy of the horror and perceived meaninglessness of the First World War. The attack at Pearl Harbor would inspire a national commitment to fight and win this second global war.

These men and women — profiled in several stories over several years — were eyewitnesses to this cataclysmic shift in world history.

But nearly all of them are gone now, victims of age and time and, yes, life. And in their absence, a displacement is taking place that surely has happened before. As one generation is replaced by the next, our commemoration of war often shifts to more recent history.

We don't mark the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. I'd be hard-pressed to name a turning point in the War of 1812. And I can't think of anything about World War I we remember each year, other than the war's end, commemorated on Nov. 11, Armistice Day, which later became Veterans Day.

"I think that is probably a very normal thing," Dick Taylor, the retired director of county veteran services, said of the generational shift.

Taylor's grandfather fought in World War I, his dad served and was wounded during World War II, and Taylor served in the U.S. Marine Corps, just missing Vietnam.

But even though his family has a legacy of military service, Taylor said even he knows little about his grandfather's history.

"Admittedly, I don't know much about my dad's father and his World War I service," Taylor said.

But he's always believed that veteran profiles in The Californian and elsewhere help readers stay connected to our history and the role that local men and women have played.

FIRING AT ENEMY PLANES WITH A PISTOL

Joseph Licastro Sr. who would become a professional architect, a private pilot, oil painter, fly fisherman and family man before his death in 2015, was at Pearl that fateful morning.

"He didn't think of himself as a hero," recalled Licastro's son, Joseph Licastro II.

In fact, most of the scores of veterans I've interviewed over the years, have said the same: "Don't call me a hero."

Licastro, a two-year veteran of the Army Air Corps, was jarred awake that Sunday morning by the whining engines of Japanese dive bombers, their machine guns strafing men and planes on the tarmac at Wheeler Army Airfield on the island of Oahu.

He described the scene as "hectic, disorganized.

"There was no leadership," he said. "We kind of ran around in circles."

He saw friends die, planes destroyed and his own barracks go up in a ball of flame.

As Licastro ran for the cover of some trees, an enemy pilot fired at him — and Licastro fired back with his sidearm.

A BOMB BLEW HIM INTO THE SEA

For years, Jesse Biglay, lived near the shores of Isabella Lake in eastern Kern County. But few knew he was standing on the deck of a ship anchored in Pearl Harbor when the roar of incoming aircraft foretold a disaster.

One officer on deck thought it was a mock attack, Biglay told me in 2006.

"Before we could react, a dive bomber came in fast and dropped a bomb into the ship's No. 1 powder magazine," he said. "The concussion blew all the way from bow to stern. About 15 of us were blown right off the ship and into the water."

HEROES DON'T ALWAYS CARRY GUNS

Ruth Boone was a dancer with movie star looks when the war came to America's doorstep. She performed in shows for the USO, and — like Rosie the Riveter — she worked in a plant in Taft constructing bulkheads for B-17 "Flying Fortress" bombers.

Carl Boone was a big band jazz trumpeter and soldier who survived Pearl Harbor. But the experience changed him.

"He hardly played after that," Mrs. Boone told me 65 years after the attack.

Love was hurried for many during the war years. Young men didn't know if they would live to see 25 and women couldn't be certain they would ever see their sweethearts again.

"I didn't really know the man when I married him," Ruth Boone recalled. "Then he went off again to war. That's the way it was in those days."

But it didn't seem to matter. The marriage lasted 60 years.

In 1999, Carl suffered a severe stroke that left him disabled. But Ruth refused to give up on him.

"I had to feed him through a stomach tube," she says. "I was his only caregiver."

She cared for him for years — until his death in 2004. Though he could no longer speak clearly, Ruth understood him, and in some ways, they shared some of the most intimate moments of their marriage during those final years.

CONFUSION, BEDLAM, SURVIVAL

Almost too young to wear the uniform of a U.S. Marine, 17-year-old William "Bill" Harrer was just going on guard duty at the Pearl Harbor naval yard when the bombs started exploding, he told The Californian 70 years later.

As Pfc. Harrer turned back to join his unit, he came inches from becoming one of the thousands of casualties that day.

"I heard something whistle by my ear," Harrer remembered.

A chunk of shrapnel had just missed him and was embedded in the road beneath his feet. Harrer couldn't resist. He took a moment to dig the hunk of lead out of the ground, slipped it into his pocket and rushed back to his barracks, where he was met with complete bedlam.

He kept that piece of shrapnel as a reminder until his death in 2012.

SHOULD WE, WILL WE, REMEMBER?

There's at least one Pearl Harbor veteran still living in Kern County. Maybe more. But time is not kind to those in their 90s.

Maybe Pearl Harbor Day will still be commemorated 100 years from now. But few across the country commemorate Gettysburg or Vicksburg or even the surrender at Appomattox, which ended America's bloodiest conflict, the Civil War.

Marc Sandall, an organizer of local Pearl Harbor Day events, says it continues to be important for Americans to mark this day, to remember.

"It serves as a reminder that there are heroes amongst us," said Sandall, who lost a distant cousin, Merrill Keith Sandall, when the USS Arizona was sunk in the harbor that day.

"Our country sacrificed so much," Sandall said. "If we don't take time to remember, we won't know where we came from."

Military strategists and the political figures who wield power over the armed forces would also to well to study history.

As he's grown older, Taylor said, he has become more steadfast in his belief that those who decide when and where to put American troops in harm's way had better have a damn good reason to do so — and an exit strategy.

"As a nation, as a military power, we are phenomenal at winning battles," Taylor said. "But we are horrible at maintaining the peace."

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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