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Pearl Harbor remains with Waukegan sailor 71 years later

Pearl Harbor survivor Joe Triolo 92 Waukegan holds medals he received while serving U.S. Navy during WWII Korean War. Triolo

Pearl Harbor survivor Joe Triolo, 92, of Waukegan holds medals he received while serving in the U.S. Navy during WWII and the Korean War. Triolo retired after 21 years in the service from 1937 to 1958. Triolo was a teacher in the North Chicago School district retiring after 21 years in 1991. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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An estimated 3,000 survivors of Pearl Harbor are still alive, according to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, founded in 1958, which marked its final anniversary ­— the 70th — of the attack, last year, before disbanding last Jan. 1.

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Updated: February 6, 2013 1:56AM

WAUKEGAN — One of a fast-dwindling number of Pearl Harbor survivors, Joseph Triolo, was a 21-year-old petty officer third class on that infamous day, Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the United States without warning.

Triolo, 92, of Waukegan said he still thinks about the attack. He was serving aboard the USS Tangier where, upon hearing the alarm and observing Japanese planes in the sky, he took a shortcut to his battle station, a machine gun on the ship’s fly bridge.

“I could observe the entire harbor,” said Triolo, who first shared his story with the Lake County News-Sun in 2001.

“The Japanese planes were like a swarm of bees, all over the place, flying at will, attacking the ships in the harbor.”

Triolo recalled that the nearest ship to his vantage point was the battleship Utah and that he fired on the Japanese plane that launched the torpedo that sank the ship. “When the torpedo was launched, there was a motorboat alongside, at the gangway unloading officers who were returning to the ship,” he said.

“The torpedo struck the ship below the waterline under the boat and the gangway. I can still see the boat, the boat crew and the officer passengers being blown hundreds of feet in the air — resembling miniature dolls.”

The Utah capsized at its berth in a matter of minutes, Triolo said, where she still lies. Crew members who managed to get topside followed the hull of the ship as it rolled over, then swam ashore.

Triolo, who spent Friday at a commemoration ceremony held at a retirement home in Des Plaines, said he and his fellow sailors were “stunned and shocked” by the attack.

“But we had so little time to think about those things,” he said. “Right after Pearl Harbor, (President) Roosevelt declared war. My ship got underway within eight days. We were on our way to Midway and Wake Island.”

Triolo spent the remainder of the war patrolling the channel in and around Guadalcanal and other islands, eventually ending up in Japan. He took part in many operations,

“But so did hundreds of thousands of other men,” he said. “It’s the same story told many times.”

Triolo, a native of West Virginia, served 21 years in the Navy, retiring on Sept. 2, 1958. He then taught in North Chicago schools, worked as a high school counselor and served as chairman of Region 5 of the Illinois Education Association, before his second retirement in 1991. He and his wife Katherine (nee Despot), a native of North Chicago, still live independently, still drive, still shop. Katherine is 96.

“We do everything we can to stay out of a nursing home,” Triolo said. “A person can sit around and really deteriorate.”

Triolo said he “occasionally” dwells on the attack, 71 years ago, that killed 2,335 U.S. servicemen and 68 civilians.

“You think about the fellows who didn’t make it,” he said.

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