Ski Biernacki and Wally Walling: Return to Pearl Harbor

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson March 15, 2017 15:56

Chester “Ski” Biernacki of Jamestown and Wally Walling of Valley Springs were among some 90 survivors who returned in December to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack. Walling has attended every anniversary since 2003, but it was Biernacki’s first. Writer Chace Anderson accompanied Biernacki to Oahu and visited with Walling while there.

Wally Walling (left) and Ski Biernacki in the tower where Walling in 1941 watched the Japanese attack unfold

“I’ll tell you what keeps me coming back,” Wally Walling tells me. “It’s all those people from around the world who come to the table where I sign autographs at the Arizona Memorial Visitors Center. Women come up crying and put their arms around me. Little kids eight or nine years old put their little hand in mine and say, ‘Sir, thank you for saving our lives.’ Imagine what that does to me.”

“Honest to God,” Ski Biernacki admits, “I never thought I wanted to go back to Pearl Harbor until that interview for Friends and Neighbors (Summer 2014 story, now online at seniorfan.com). That released some of my memories, and it started me thinking, maybe I would like to go back. Maybe I could find someone who was on the Helena with me.”

In Hawaii both men attended a number of 75th anniversary events, and wherever he went, Biernacki looked for a hat or a name badge – something that might identify one of the returning Pearl Harbor survivors as a USS Helena crewmate. The cruiser was torpedoed and heavily damaged at Pearl Harbor with nearly 1,000 men on board. “When I start wondering if I’m the only one left, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. It sticks in my mind.”

Of the more than 84,000 uniformed personnel on Oahu at the time of the attack, fewer than 1,000 are thought to be alive today. Nearly all are in their 90s.

Then at a reception on the third day in Hawaii, Ski found what he was looking for. Dave Thomas, age 94, a seaman 1st Class in 1941 now living in Montana, was sitting at a table with a Helena name badge around his neck. Ski grabbed his crewmate’s hand and held on as the two became acquainted and compared notes more than seven decades old. Though sketchy about whether they could place each other from 75 years ago, they know each other now, have exchanged numbers and addresses, and have vowed to stay in touch.

No one knows for certain how many aboard the Helena on Dec. 7 are still alive. Muster lists and obituary research are inconclusive, but at the time of this writing, at least two men are still with us: Biernacki and Thomas. There may be more.

On Dec. 7, Walling paid his respects to the sailors lost on the USS Arizona. That day Navy divers were placing the ashes of two recently deceased Arizona survivors down among the remains of 1,177 crewmembers killed in 1941.

“As I was coming aboard the memorial, the divers were coming up,” Wally says. “They climbed out of the water, moved to the end of the platform and all went to attention to honor me as I came aboard.”

Biernacki found Dave Thomas, 94, a former USS Helena crewmate

Walling, 95, took Biernacki and me to the top of the 180-foot tower from which he witnessed the entire attack 75 years ago (Summer 2016 story, now online at seniorfan.com). “I’m the only one alive today who saw the whole thing from up here,” Wally tells us.

And what a view it is. The entirety of Pearl Harbor lay before us, from Ford Island at the center of the harbor to the entry channel from the Pacific to the south. It was possible then to imagine the highly synchronized Japanese attack and the incredible destruction it wrought on the American Pacific Fleet.

Like all the attending Pearl Harbor survivors, Walling and Biernacki were asked countless times to sign autographs, pose for pictures and relate pieces of their personal histories. Ski may have the body of a 95-year-old, but he has a 30-year-old spirit and took each opportunity to flirt with, smile for or allow himself to be kissed by admiring women, whether they were 22 or in their 80s.

Biernacki traveled to Hawaii with the hope of placing a wreath in the water where his ship had been docked in 1941, but tight military security prevented civilians – even survivors of the Japanese attack – from that area. Instead, he bought a lei, and on Dec. 7, with Ski on shore and the garland around my neck, I swam out past the breakers from a beach at the west end of Waikiki. Once past other swimmers and surfers, I asked a blessing on those from the Helena who survive to this day, those who have died, and those who were lost aboard ship. The lei then floated out to sea in their honor.

“As long as I’m alive, I’ll come back every year,” Walling says. “I want everyone in the world to remember Pearl Harbor. I want everyone to remember the people who gave their lives for the freedom we have today.”

Would Biernacki like to return? “You better betcha,” he says. “I’m shooting for the 100th Anniversary.”

Of course by then his body would be 120. But I know his spirit would still be that of a 30-year-old.

Writer Chace Anderson (center) with Walling and Biernacki in front of the visitors center for the USS Arizona Memorial

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

 

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson March 15, 2017 15:56
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