TEMPLE, Texas — The two old warriors survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, separately emerging onto the top deck of the USS Phoenix to witness the bombings of American ships and fighter planes that left 2,400 dead.
They served together on the USS Phoenix for five years throughout World War II, taking part in 32 bloody battles in the South Pacific.
But on that ship filled with 1,200 sailors, the two men never met.
"Neither one of us ran across each other," Albert Kamenicky said. "We just never did hang together. He was on the fantail and I was on the bow."
It wasn’t until 40 years later that life brought them together again, and now Kamenicky, 86, and Ben Russell, 87, are friends, living together as residents of the William R. Courtney Texas State Veterans Home in Temple.
Along with one other veteran in Mission, they are the last Pearl Harbor survivors living in the state’s seven veterans homes, according to the Texas General Land Office.
The duo will get one more look at Pearl Harbor on Tuesday, when they take part in the 69th anniversary services and a rededication ceremony.
The Texas General Land Office’s Veteran Land Board, which manages the state’s veteran retirement homes, arranged the trip to Hawaii, which it said was paid for with community donations to the homes.
Both men grew up during the Great Depression, Kamenicky on a farm in the Milam County town of Cameron and Russell in Memphis, Tenn., and joined the Navy as teenagers just before the beginning of World War II.
"Being a Depression baby, in the Navy I had three good meals a day and I was issued clothing," Russell said. "I had it good."
Today, the two men often discuss the moment that brought the United States into World War II.
"Neither one of us saw the same thing," said Kamenicky, whose duties that day were in the powder station of the main battery. "When you get all of it together, that’s when you have the full story."
In December 1941, both men were aboard the USS Phoenix as it lay anchored in Pearl Harbor alongside dozens of Navy ships and hundreds of military planes. On Dec. 6, Kamenicky helped load 275 pounds of gunpowder onto the USS Arizona. The next morning, that battleship exploded as it was hit by bombs from the surprise Japanese attack.
Russell was in the bowels of the Phoenix, washing dishes in the scullery, when the first wave of attacks hit, and he scrambled to his battle station to stow away mooring lines.
"As I stepped through the hatch I was facing the Arizona, and it blew," he said. "It took a minute for the sound and concussion to hit us bodily."
Around the Brooklyn-class light cruiser, the harbor was engulfed by flames and chaos as waves of Japanese fighter planes attacked the unsuspecting Americans. In all, 188 aircraft were destroyed, four U.S. Navy battleships were sunk, another dozen ships damaged and 2,402 were killed.
But the Phoenix was undamaged and managed to steam out of the burning harbor in a fruitless pursuit of Japanese aircraft carriers. As it made its way out of the harbor, a battleship in front of it was hit by Japanese bombs and heavily damaged.
"We were busy, but we couldn’t help but look over the side at what was going on," Russell said. "I saw people being rescued by launches. I think they survived, but they were in very bad shape."
Kamenicky said he is often asked whether he was scared during the attack.
"From the time they dropped the first bomb until (the end of the war), I was scared," he said. "But it’s a different kind of fear. Something we always did in training was that we were able to stand up and do our work regardless and we wouldn’t think about the fear. I guess it’s like these old cowboys who used to get in gunfights. They did their job and afterward they were scared."
For the next five years, Kamenicky and Russell served on the USS Phoenix as it conducted missions throughout the South Pacific, taking part in battles in the Admiralty Islands, New Guinea and the Philippines. Kamenicky said he fired the opening salvo in the Battle of Surigao Strait, a key naval engagement.
The ship emerged from the war largely unscathed and was dubbed "the luckiest ship in the Navy" by her crew. After the war, the ship was sold to Argentina, and it was sunk by British forces in 1982 during the Falklands War.
During World War II, the 1,200-member crew suffered hardly any casualties. One of the few to be killed was struck by ricocheting shrapnel from a Japanese bomb as he spoke with Kamenicky on the deck of the Phoenix.
"All of a sudden I saw a plane come down," he said. "We jumped, but he didn’t make it. He was asking me about Texas."
As the Phoenix maneuvered through the South Pacific, Russell and Kamenicky remained strangers. Both men left the Navy as the war ended and hunted for work.
"We had a hard time then," Kamenicky said. "Too many people came back all at once. I just bummed around for a few years, trying to find a job, something to do."
Kamenicky married and moved to Temple, landing a job in the engineering department of the Santa Fe Railway in 1951, where he worked until he retired in 1986.
Russell also ended up with a railroad, working as a chief dispatcher for the Reading Railroad in eastern Pennsylvania for 37 years. When he retired in 1983, he and his wife moved to Temple, where his daughter and her husband lived.
"I told my wife, ‘We’re getting out of the cold,’" Russell said.
Even though they lived in the same town, the old sailors didn’t meet until 1988, when they both attended a reunion of Pearl Harbor survivors in Norfolk, Va.
"When we got back to Temple we would get together," Kamenicky said. "We turned out to be friends."
"We really got to know each other then," Russell said. "We’ve been together ever since."
They grew closer as they entered their 80s. When Kamenicky’s wife passed away, Russell stood by his side.
"He’s leaned on me," Russell said. "When his wife died, he called me. I spent the whole day with him."
Both men outlived their wives, and as their health declined, they enrolled in the Texas State Veterans Home.
Kamenicky, who uses a wheelchair because of back problems and suffers from diabetes, moved there in 2008, and Russell, whose declining vision left him unable to drive, joined him in January.
In his sparse room, Russell keeps the memories of Dec., 7, 1941, close to him. Above his narrow, neatly made bed hang two dramatic photos of the attack; one of the burning USS Arizona, another an aerial view taken by a Japanese squad leader. In a corner of the photo sits the USS Phoenix.
Kamenicky hasn’t been back to Pearl Harbor since the attack 69 years ago and is hoping to pay respects to the dead. "A bunch of them I went through boot camp with in San Diego," he said.
For Russell, the visit will be his third. "I always leave there with a little bit of melancholy because of some of the things I saw that morning," he said. "I can’t go back without thinking about them."
But this time the two men will go back together, friends this time, seven decades after the attack that altered the course of history.
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com