Pearl Harbor survivor's bequest is to remember Dec. 7


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Art Nagy of McKeesport died last month at age 90, and the Mon-Yough chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association died with him.

A veteran of the Japanese attack 71 years ago today, he was the last member.

But his story will live on at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, which plans to display his uniform and medals as part of a Pacific war exhibit that also will include a clock salvaged from the USS Oklahoma, torpedoed at Pearl on Dec. 7, 1941.

Mr. Nagy went on to see combat as an infantryman in several Pacific campaigns and even earned the Soldiers Medal for saving a man from drowning in a river on Guadalcanal in 1943.

The medal was presented to him in 2002 by U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and makes him eligible for the Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors.

"He's in," said curator Michael Kraus.

"He was very proud of his service," said Mr. Nagy's son, Art Jr., of Westmoreland County.

Mr. Nagy had given instructions for another son, Stephen, the executor of his will, about what he wanted after his death.

He asked that his uniform be donated to the hall, along with a case containing his medals, and he wanted the U.S. flag that draped his coffin at his military funeral to fly at McKeesport City Hall through today.

"Those were his last wishes," said Stephen of Cranberry. "He made all that pretty clear, and I've done that."

Stephen also donated his father's Pearl Harbor Survivors Association jacket with its "Schofield Barracks" inscription.

Mr. Nagy, a member of the 25th Infantry Division, 8th Field Artillery Headquarters Battery, was in that building on the morning of Dec. 7.

Over the years, he had often talked of that day and his other war experiences in media interviews and gatherings of veterans.

At 7:55 a.m., he heard what sounded like "rumbling thunder" and assumed U.S. planes were practicing. He recalled asking his buddies, "What the heck are they doing this on Sunday for?"

But then the planes swept in low and strafed the barracks. Machine-gun bullets gouged holes in the roof, walls and floor, and the men dove for cover under cots.

He said he went to the window and saw "a Japanese plane diving so low that I could see the pilot grinning down at me while firing his machine guns."

Outside it was chaos as soldiers and civilians scrambled for cover and fell from wounds.

Mr. Nagy often said that if he'd had a .45 pistol on him, he would have fired on the planes because they were so close.

But the weapons were stored away, packed in grease, and the sergeant who had the key to the storeroom was in Honolulu.

"We felt helpless, then frustrated and very angry," Mr. Nagy said.

After the planes flew off, he rode in a truck to the harbor. There he took in the full devastation -- battleships ablaze, billowing smoke, the smell of burning oil and flesh. More than 2,400 died that day, another 1,200 were wounded.

Everyone remained jittery long after the planes had left.

"People were so shook up that they were shooting at anything," Mr. Nagy recalled. "Shoot a cow. Shoot a spotlight. One man shot at his own reflection in a search light."

In the following days, he worked around the clock with his unit to lay miles of wire to restore communication lines.

Then he began training to take the fight to the Japanese and shipped out to Guadalcanal. He served as a forward observer, coordinating artillery strikes, and he saw a lot of action there and across the Pacific.

He killed Japanese soldiers in close-quarters fighting; his old scrapbook is filled with photos of them along with Japanese paper money. Among the other items he brought home was a blood-stained Japanese battle flag that he took from a dead soldier.

"He was in heavy combat," said Art Jr. "It got ugly."

Mr. Nagy retained a grudging respect for the enemy.

"Those Japanese, if I had to fight a war with anyone in the world, it would be them," he once said. "They wouldn't give up."

He was full of war stories.

In one, he said he and his comrades heard laughing in the jungle and went to investigate. Japanese soldiers had come across a shot-up American jeep and were rooting through it. One picked up a bar of soap and, thinking it was food, bit into it. That's what the laughing was about. But the noise had given them away, and Mr. Nagy and his unit wiped them out.

Despite years of combat, Mr. Nagy won his most prestigious medal because of his ability as a swimmer. He had qualified through the Red Cross as his unit's life-saving instructor.

That came in handy in January 1943 on Guadalcanal, after the Japanese defeat. Local residents had finished helping U.S. troops transport equipment across the Ilu River and were returning to their village. One tried to ford the river but, not a good swimmer, was swept away toward the bay.

Mr. Nagy plunged into the water and saved him.

He received commendation letters, but the paperwork never made it to the right channels. He didn't receive the Soldiers Medal until 2002 at an event at Station Square.

His swimming skills proved useful again during the Luzon campaign. Dropped off by a submarine at night two miles from shore, he swam to the beach and buried himself in the sand to observe Japanese ship movements.

The war ended while he was in the mountains of Luzon.

"I know he was really happy when they dropped the A bomb," said his son, Stephen. "He, for one, never saw anything wrong with it."

Mr. Nagy had seen enough combat.

"I feel I was lucky because I had no serious wounds during all my battle time," he said.

He came home in May 1945 and, like most veterans, got on with his life by working and raising a family.

In 1991, he returned to Pearl Harbor for the 50th anniversary of the attack. When he visited Schofield Barracks, soldiers pulled back the newer ceiling panels so he could see the old ceiling.

The bullet holes from Dec. 7, 1941 -- the "date which will live in infamy" -- were still there.

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Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published December 7, 2012 5:00 AM


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