The immaculate, black super-stretch limousine carefully weaved through the parked cars and traffic of a nearby estate sale and pulled to a stop in front of the Sun City Center home. People at the sale stared at it, no doubt wondering who was in it and why it was there. In a community of golf carts and even a good number of Lincolns and Cadillacs, the car stood out. It was something special.
Ed Socha was among them in wondering. The car was so long it covered the width of his driveway and a good part of his yard.
It was Saturday, December 7 — Pearl Harbor Day.
Socha, a 92-year-old retired U.S. Navy Commander, is a Pearl Harbor Veteran and survivor. He was stationed aboard the USS Maryland and was getting ready to go to church on what began as another beautiful morning in Hawaii 72 years ago. He was waiting aboard the USS Oklahoma for a launch ashore when he saw the first wave of Japanese Zeros flying in to attack. So instead he immediately returned to the Maryland to his battle station, to his job, and in an instant he became one of America’s first veterans of World War II.
Socha did not simply survive the attack on Pearl Harbor; he went to work that day, just as thousands of his fellow service members did. Despite the carnage and chaos growing around him, he did his job, serving and protecting the nation.
Seventy-two years later to the day, Michael La Paglia, the limousine driver, got out of the car and opened the rear door for Socha and then waited to open the other door for Socha’s friend and neighbor Richard Latamour.
“Are other people in there?” Socha asked, eyeing the length of the vehicle.
“No sir, La Paglia responded with deep respect. “This is just for you.”
When Anthony D’Amico, owner of 1st Class Limousines in Riverview, learned that a Pearl Harbor veteran needed a ride to a ceremony in Tampa, he didn’t hesitate.
“We will do that,” he said.
There would be no charge for it — this was much more about honor and respect than business.
Today is Pearl Harbor Day, driver Michael La Paglia said. I was honored as the son of a Navy veteran to escort this Pearl Harbor Survivor Veteran to the Veterans Memorial Park in Tampa. I am truly proud of his great service in the Navy and the great country in which we live.
The stands were full for the ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park and Museum in Tampa. There were Patriot Guard Riders with the motorcycles holding American Flags, there were riflemen for the salute, and there was a color guard and a bagpiper. And there were dignitaries — ranging from staff members from MacDill and officials from veterans organizations to former prisoners of war. But the star of the ceremony was Ed Socha.
When he began to speak, the audience quieted and the years peeled away and he was again Commander Edward J. Socha of the United States Navy. He was decked out in a dress jacket over a Hawaiian shirt.
“Aloha everybody!” he announced in a strong and clear voice.
He went on to describe the day, related the feel and atmosphere as though it were yesterday. He told of the shock and the dismay and of numerous false reports, such as those of enemy troop landings. But when it all began, on a perfectly beautiful morning on a Pacific island, he thought it had to be some kind of a drill.
“When I saw the Rising Sun emblem on the planes, I soon found out that it was not,” he said. “I heard the call for general quarters and by the time I got to my battle station on the Maryland, I glanced over the side and gasped at the unbelievable sight of the Oklahoma flipped bottom up. She must have suffered three or four or more torpedo hits.
He told of the rescue efforts he saw as people began trying to reach survivors, tapping away on the hull of the mortally wounded ship, in which 429 crewmembers would perish.
Military and civilian casualties that day totaled over 2,400. Tens of thousands of service members survived and they went on to lead the effort that would win the war. Today, fewer than 3,000 Pearl Harbor veterans are still alive.
“I am a lifetime member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association,” Socha said. “We were chartered in 1958. We turned in our charter on December 31, 2011 because death and old age had trimmed the ranks. The duties of the association had been taken over by the National Park Service in Hawaii.”
In a remark that drew unexpected laughter, Socha added a wry comment at his own expense.
“I just got a letter from them [the Park Service] saying that I am a life member of the association but my current membership expires at the end of December in 2014.”
Near the conclusion of his talk, the rapt audience listened as he quoted the words of a fellow Pearl Harbor survivor:
Destiny has granted you the courage for the journey through life.
Socha’s journey involved serving his nation through WWII and through numerous posts until his retirement from the Navy in 1966 holding the rank of Commander.
He looked up at the audience and thanked everyone for listening. He received an extended standing ovation.
The ceremony concluded with the memorial wreath presentation and a rifle salute. And then Veterans Park officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking for what they believe will be the largest World War II memorial in Florida.
Afterwards, Ed Socha was surrounded by people — taking his photo, posing with him for photos, people wanting to thank him and shake his hand, and by members of the media asking for interviews.
Ed Socha did not know what to make of the limousine that pulled to a stop in front of his house earlier that day but it was most appropriate. Socha is a humble man who moved to Sun City Center with his wife Naomi, married since 1948, and the father of two children, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He is a humble man who on Saturday became a reluctant celebrity.
He is a living symbol of a nation that would take a grave, unimaginable blow but would not kneel; a nation that would immediately take steps to rebuild, to stand tall and go on to win a world war; a nation that would win but become so powerful as not to conquer, but rather extend a hand of friendship to a defeated enemy.
Like his millions of fellow veterans, Commander Edward J. Socha is a symbol of all that is good about America and more. He has been granted the courage for the journey through life and a nation is better for it.
Later, the driver Michael La Paglia, his voice cracking with emotion, called to again offer his thanks. With that, he spoke for many.
Veterans Memorial Park and Rear Admiral LeRoy Collins Jr. Museum is actively seeking donations for the construction of the World War II memorial, for which groundbreaking took place on Dec. 7, 2013 with help of several veterans. The park is located at 3602 Highway 301 North in Tampa. For information, visit www.veteransparkhc.com.
1st Class Limousine is located in Riverview. For more information, visit www.1stclasslimollc.com or call 813-234-1744.