December 5, 2011 2:07:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
"There are only a few events in our history that all Americans remember with vivid clarity," said Shea McLean, curator of the USS Alabama, anchored permanently in Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Ala.
Most people in this generation remember precisely where they were when they first heard the horrific news of Sept. 11, 2001. The previous generation can say what they were doing when they first heard of John F. Kennedy's assassination.
"Well, 'our greatest generation' remembers Dec. 7, 1941, as if it were yesterday," McLean stated.
For C.L. Fair, it was a Sunday morning like many others. The 28-year-old ship's barber from Gordo, Ala., still only half-dressed, was enjoying a cup of coffee with fellow seamen on the USS Nevada -- moored behind the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor's Battleship Row.
"We heard a funny popping noise. I looked out the porthole and saw fire ricocheting on the water," recounted Fair in 1991, for a Commercial Dispatch interview with staff writer Marc Kuykendall. "Then a plane came over and strafed the ship. When it banked to turn, I saw the rising sun on it. I saw it, but I didn't believe it."
It was the opening volley of a surprise attack by more than 350 Japanese warplanes. The assault would devastate America's Pacific fleet and draw the country irrevocably into World
Fair, who later settled in Columbus to raise his five children, passed away in 1999.
Until recently, his stories were his family's to treasure. But now his memories of "a date that will live in infamy" will be shared with thousands of visitors to the USS Alabama, thanks to the recent donation of memorabilia by his grown children -- Priscilla Fair Nichols and Dennis Fair of Columbus, Forrest Fair and Leatrice Fair Genaux of Jacksonville, Fla., and Sherry Fair Gavin of Aberdeen.
Fair's Navy uniforms rested, lovingly preserved, for more than 60 years in a cedar trunk. Alongside them, sepia tone photographs and documents, saved from the day he entered the service in 1940 until his discharge seven years later, tell a story.
In white cap and crisp blue, he smiles from images with his blushing new bride, and, later, with some of his children. There are pictures on battleships, and from destinations worlds away from the rural countryside he called home.
After their mother entered a nursing home last year, the Fair siblings were left with the task of sorting through the family house.
"Everything was stored away in her cedar chest; the uniform was in perfect condition," said Leatrice.
By consensus, the uniform was passed down to Forrest, the eldest son and a veteran himself.
"I went into the military during the Vietnam era, into the Navy, out of respect for my dad," he said. "All of that had been packed away so long, and I just didn't feel like it was the right thing to do, to pack it away again," he explained.
Because their father was an Alabama native, and because he'd taken his children as youngsters to visit the USS Alabama, the connection to the battleship seemed a natural one.
Curator McLean said, "You can only imagine -- here we were about three months before the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and I'm contacted by Mr. (Forrest) Fair who described some of the items his father had kept after the war. Of course we were thrilled to hear they were considering contributing them to the park."
After seeing a photo McLean emailed of the just-completed exhibit, Leatrice praised, "They've done a wonderful display on the main deck of the ship. There's even a part of the Arizona in it. ... You know, Daddy was supposed to be on the Arizona."
"Dear Papa," begins a yellowed postcard handwritten in pencil by young C.L. Fair to his father. It's postmarked Nov. 29, 1940. "Have just found out where I am going. ... Here is my address: Cloyd Lavern Fair, USS Arizona, c/o Postmaster, San Pedro, California."
"He was supposed to be on the Arizona, but he got the mumps and had to stay," explained daughter Priscilla. "He was stateside for a month getting over that, and they eventually put him on the USS Nevada to go to Hawaii to meet up with the Arizona."
That he never made it onto the Arizona may well have saved Fair's life. But, nevertheless, that day in December 1941 was hellish in every way.
In his words
As wounded sailors began filling the lower decks of the Nevada, Fair helped treat them.
"They ran out of bandages, so we started tearing up the mattress covers to use. I helped carry bodies down. Some weren't whole bodies," he recounted in earlier remembrances.
As he and others raced to help fallen shipmates, the Nevada struggled to get underway and head to sea, her mooring lines chopped free with axes.
"There was so much noise and vibration," the sailor recalled. "When she was hit, the old ship would flinch like you were getting shot."
As the battleship came under increasing fire, the crew was forced to deliberately ground her rather than risk blocking the harbor channel.
Those men who still could frantically fought fires in shifts all night, helping the wounded, collecting those who paid the ultimate price. Almost 70 of the Nevada's 1,100 to 1,200 sailors died during the attack or from their injuries.
The Arizona's fate was worse. The most heavily damaged vessel in Battleship Row, she suffered four direct hits from 800 kg bombs and broke in two. She remains where she sank to this day, a tomb for more than 1,000 men who went down with her. In all, nearly 2,500 lost their lives in the nightmarish attack.
Even years later, after Fair settled in Columbus and ran his Southern Barber Shop on East Main Street for more than three decades, he seldom spoke of the war, unless directly asked.
Priscilla, her own voice halting, recalled her father talking of men screaming for help, of floating bodies in the water.
Of her personal visit to the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, she said, "It was very touching ... to look down and remember Daddy actually talking about Battleship Row. To actually be there and see some of the same things Daddy had shown us in books ... it made me so grateful that God let him live."
As a fixture in the Columbus community, C.L. Fair made a life centered around his wife, Ellen, and his children. He enjoyed fishing and gardening, family members say, and he found his own quiet way to live with Pearl Harbor and the years of war that followed.
Even when diagnosed in later life with stomach cancer, he faced it with a certain calm.
His son Dennis was with him that day.
"He looked at the doctor and said, 'Well, you know, Doc, I asked the good Lord to let me survive Pearl Harbor, and he did. I asked him to let me see my first child born, and he did. I asked the Lord to let me see all my kids be born and be healthy, and he did ... If it's my time, I'm ready to go,'" he shared.
Dennis continued, "He never got down. He had been granted so many blessings; he had that true peace of mind. He was just that type of guy."
This Wednesday, on the 70th anniversary of the attack, many of the Fair family will be in Mobile to view the exhibit for the first time. The children are humbled that their father, who wouldn't have sought the limelight, will be part of such a memorable occasion.
"I think I'll be filled with pride, that someone would honor our dad," admitted Dennis.
Priscilla and Leatrice are prepared for emotions to run high.
"But all the tears are for Daddy to be honored like this," said Priscilla."We never expected it to turn in to this."
As the number of living Pearl Harbor and World War II veterans dwindles each year, the next generations are charged with remembering events that changed the course of history.
A Jan. 17, 1947, letter from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal to Fair, soon after he left the service, was found in the cedar chest. The message still resounds with all naval vets who served, suffered and eventually triumphed.
" ... You have served in the greatest Navy in the world. It crushed two enemy fleets at once, receiving their surrenders only four months apart. ... No other Navy at any time has done so much," the letter reads. " ... For your part in these achievements you deserve to be proud as long as you live. The nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.