Dec. 7, 1941: “A day that will live in infamy,” remarked President Franklin D. Roosevelt the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked by some 350 Japanese fighter planes, driving the United States to join the Allied Forces in the fight against the Axis powers in the second world war.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor — a day on which thousands of American soldiers and civilians gave their lives while stationed at the sprawling military base in Oahu, Hawaii.
Frank Curre — who was only 17-years-old at the time of the attacks — survived Pearl Harbor, and lived to tell the tale. In a twist of irony, it was that same day, Dec. 7 — some 70 years later — on which Frank died.
“It’s like he held on for today, which is his special day,” a family member told the family’s local newspaper on Dec. 7, 2011.
Frank died from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Frank Curre’s Story
Born in Texas, Frank joined the Navy at 17-years-old. In Frank’s words,
“When I got out of high school, I went looking for a job. Couldn’t find it, so I told Mama, ‘I’m joining the Navy — and you’ve got to sign the papers, because I’m only 17.’ I said, ‘If you don’t sign the papers for me, Mama, I’ll go downtown and get a hobo to sign ’em.’”
His mother signed the papers and in a few short months Frank was aboard the U.S.S. Tennessee battleship headed for Pearl Harbor.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Frank was working as a mess hall cook when he heard two huge, consecutive blasts, prompting him to run up to the deck to investigate. What he saw shocked him:
“I saw the first god-awful sight I witnessed that day. That’s when the bomb come down that hit the Arizona. That ship come 12-15 foot in the air, broke in two and settled back down. If you’d had a bag of popcorn and you’d went out here in the breeze and threw it up in the air — that was bodies that went out all over that harbor.”
Frank and other service members immediately set out to assist other survivors and victims. These memories would live with Frank for the rest of his days. In a 2011 interview with NPR, Frank said:
“I still have the nightmares, never got over the nightmares. And with God as my witness, I read my paper this morning — and right now, I can’t tell you what I read. I can’t remember. But what happened on that day is tattooed on your soul. There’s no way I can forget that. I wish to God I could.”
Frank served in the Navy until 1946. After his service, he returned to Texas where he worked as a laborer, machine operator, pressman and machinist for a daily newspaper — all jobs at which Frank was regularly exposed to asbestos.
When Frank started to experience chest pain and difficulty breathing, he went to see his doctor. X-rays showed Frank had a spot on his lung, and shortly thereafter he was diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Before Frank passed away, he worked with the lawyers at Simmons Hanly Conroy to file a mesothelioma lawsuit. Simmons Hanly Conroy Shareholder Randy Cohn considered it a privilege to represent Frank and his family.
“Everyone who met Frank was touched by his memories,” Randy said. “He never considered himself a hero, but to me Frank was a hero, not only for his service, but for the life he lived after the War. I’m honored I was able to help him and his family.”
U.S. Navy Veterans and Mesothelioma
While Frank Curre’s story from the attacks on Pearl Harbor is unparalleled, the fact that he — a U.S. Navy veteran — was diagnosed with mesothelioma is not.
Among all professions, it is U.S. military veterans like Frank who suffer the highest incidence rate of mesothelioma, representing roughly 30 percent of all newly diagnosed cases each year.
The prevalence of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases among veterans is due to the significant amount of asbestos once consumed by the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army and U.S. Marines. Resistant to heat, fire and electricity, the uses for asbestos in construction materials was seemingly limitless.
For nearly five decades, the military was the largest American consumer of asbestos, incorporating the mineral into virtually all of its ships, bases, vehicles, aircraft and barracks.
As a result, service members came into regular contact with asbestos, often handling it as part of their roles in maintaining buildings, ships, vehicles and/or aircraft. Navy veterans directly involved in the shipbuilding process were likely those who suffered the greatest risk of long-term asbestos exposure.
In the Navy, virtually every section of a Navy ship — from the boiler and engine rooms to the mess hall and living quarters — contained asbestos, which is why Navy veterans represent the largest segment of veterans with mesothelioma.
Like many other U.S. Navy veterans, Frank had not only been exposed to asbestos during his time in the Navy, but also during his post-military career.
Remembering the Fallen Heroes of Pearl Harbor
The bombing of Pearl Harbor is often considered the spark that lit the match that eventually led to the dismantling of the Nazi regime and the restoration of peace to many parts of the world.
But the cost was steep: More than 2,400 American soldiers and civilians were killed, nearly 1,800 were wounded, and two battleships and 188 aircraft were permanently destroyed during the attacks.
National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, which has taken place on every Dec. 7 since 1994, now serves as a vital reminder of the sacrifices that soldiers make when they enlist in the U.S. military to defend the country, the values, and the freedoms Americans hold dear.
This year — 2021 — the theme of National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day is “Valor, Sacrifice, and Peace.”
As stated by the U.S. National Parks Service (NPS), the goal of commemorating the attacks on Pearl Harbor is to “ensure that future generations will understand the valor and legacy of those who perished and those who fought throughout the war. The commemoration also highlights the importance of the peace that brought a reconciliation that continues to create a better future for all.”
Soldiers like Frank Curre — who will forever be American heroes — may be gone, but they will never be forgotten.