Frank Yanick drove his bus route for the Fairfax County school system as usual yesterday morning, dropping children off at JEB Stuart High School and several other schools on his regular run. But then Yanick took the rest of the day off. It was Pearl Harbor Day, and he figured he was entitled.
Yanick headed to Arlington National Cemetery, where the Falls Church resident joined fellow survivors of Pearl Harbor to commemorate the 58th anniversary of the Japanese attack that drew the United States into World War II. They were there to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and remember friends who died in the surprise attack. They come every year, though their numbers are dwindling.
"I took off half a day just to participate," said Yanick, 78, bundled in a tan overcoat to warm himself from a cold, blustery wind. "I'm probably the youngest one here. I want to show respect for my fellow shipmates."
In December 1941, Yanick was a 20-year-old petty officer who had graduated from high school a few months earlier, based in Pearl Harbor as radioman aboard the USS Phoenix, a light cruiser. Also aboard the Phoenix was Ensign Norman Lancaster, now an 85-year-old retired Navy captain who lives in Pentagon City and attended yesterday's service.
On Dec. 7, a Sunday morning, Lancaster was shaving, getting ready for a day at the beach at Waikiki, when he heard explosions in the harbor. It was probably an Army exercise, somebody said. Lancaster looked out a porthole and saw a Japanese Zero fighter fly by. "Army, hell!" yelled Lancaster. "It's the Rising Sun! Let's get the hell out of here!"
Moments before, Yanick had been hurrying to catch a launch to the USS Oklahoma for a Sunday morning Catholic chapel service aboard the big battleship. He never made it, and that saved his life, he said. The Oklahoma was among 19 ships that were sunk or heavily damaged in the Japanese attack. Almost 3,300 people were killed.
"Five more minutes, and that would have been it," Yanick said.
Like many of the sailors and soldiers who survived the day, the war was just beginning for Yanick. From his pocket yesterday, he pulled one of his proudest possessions, a card listing the 10 major campaigns in which he participated, including Guadalcanal and Leyte Gulf. "What I went through," he said.
After leaving the Navy, Yanick settled in Virginia, ran a barber's shop in Loehman's Plaza, and began driving school buses 32 years ago for extra money.
Insurance from the job paid for kidney dialysis for his wife, Mary, until she died three years ago after 51 years of marriage.
Among his co-workers, Yanick is revered for his fortitude. "I wish I had a hundred like him, but he's one of a kind," Buddy Lynch, Yanick's supervisor, said in an interview yesterday. "He's like a mentor to the new people coming aboard."
In October, Yanick was recognized by the Fairfax County School Board for 32 years of driving a school bus without an accident. "He loves working with children, and the children love him back," Lynch said.
Although Yanick is happy to talk about his war days--and he wore his Pearl Harbor cap aboard his bus yesterday morning--many of the children on his route have no idea they're being driven by a survivor of Pearl Harbor, he said.
After the laying of the wreath at yesterday's ceremony, Yanick, Lancaster and about a dozen other Pearl Harbor survivors walked over to a nearby remembrance tree, where they renewed a vow.
"We have been doing a terrible job," said Joseph "Gus" Gustaferro, acting president of the local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivor Association. "We have to get the word out so everybody remembers Pearl Harbor."
Another survivor, Hank Dettmar, led the group in a prayer.
"One final thing," Dettmar concluded. "Don't let us forget. Remember Pearl Harbor, so our nation will stay alert and never be surprised again."
CAPTION: Joseph Gustaferro, center, acting president of the local Pearl Harbor Survivor Association, is flanked by Maj. Robert Nye, left, and Chuck Taylor, Amvets commander, during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate the 58th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.