It’s been over 75 years since the day then-President Theodore Roosevelt labeled “a day that will live in infamy” when 392 Japanese aircraft attacked Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor.
“I can see it in front of me right now as they were coming,” said 96-year old Pearl Harbor survivor, George Kondas. “Those kind of days you don’t forget.”
George was just 20 years old when the Japanese bombs started falling. A third-class gunner’s mate on the USS Tracy, he began to defend his nation.
“My battle station was up on the 50-caliber machine gun up in the flying bridge,” he said, recalling that fateful day.
Friday morning, the day before Veteran’s Day, George was honored for his service to the United States by Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. A crowd of over 100 gathered to hear speeches, patriotic songs and witness an award presentation to Kondas.
“My dad doesn’t see himself as a hero and never talked about it that way,” said his daughter, Kathy Zoumberos, who works at the hospital. “He always that, I was a gunner on a destroyer and that was my job and I had to do what I had to do so I never thought about him that way but I guess I’m more proud.”
Pearl Harbor was not George’s final fight. At the age of 51, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He believes it was due to inhaling all the smoke from the attack on December 7, 1941. His right lung was removed. A few years later, in 1985, cancer returned. This time it was in his prostate.
“I think it was 80 or 82 radiation treatments that killed the tumor on my prostate,” he said. “Fortunate to survive two bouts with cancer.”
He claims his Pearl Harbor experience was tougher than his battle with cancer. His family says the disease was difficult on him, too. His oldest daughter, Carol Alter, was diagnosed with lymphoma in February. She was pronounced cancer-free three weeks ago.
“My dad said, when I was first diagnosed, ‘Just remember. I beat it twice. You can do this’,” she said. “We are like family. My sister works here. My daughter (Alison) works here. I’ve worked here in the past. We’re indebted to Moffitt.”
George met his wife, Violet, in the days following the attack at Pearl Harbor. They have been married for 75 years.
“We grew up in Hawaii, too. So not only was Pearl Harbor our home but our father fought for our freedom there,” said Alter. “It was always something that meant a lot to us.”
Pearl Harbor is more than a day on the calendar to the Kondas family. The attack killed 2,403 Americans. The USS Arizona’s lost claimed nearly half of those lives. 1,177 of the 2,512-man crew perished. Eighteen naval ships were sunk or run aground and 188 American aircraft were destroyed.
A Washington Post article reports there were less than 2,500 Pearl Harbor survivors alive in 2015. Kondas remembers it like it was yesterday. At 96, he’s still very well-spoken and nimble of mind. He was saluted by all in attendance Friday morning as he spoke the final words of his post-award speech:
“God Bless you all and thank you for coming."
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