Vince Cortese has a white cap with a picture of the USS Arizona.
He keeps it wrapped up and only wears it on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
But he brought it out Wednesday, about three weeks early. It was a special occasion.
Cortese, 83, of Kennewick, watched the Dec. 7, 1941, attack unfold in person. He was a boy living with his family in naval housing in Hawaii when Japanese fighter planes screamed overhead, unleashing the withering assault that plunged the U.S. into World War II.
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The 75th anniversary of the day that’s lived in infamy is approaching. And on Wednesday evening, Cortese brought the cap — and his memories — to share with two young dancers from the Tri-Cities who’ll travel to Hawaii next month to help mark the anniversary.
They’re not much older than Cortese was when he became an eyewitness to history. He was 8 when the attack happened. Alexis Martin is 9 and Jasmine Day is 10.
The students at Dance Connection in Kennewick greeted Cortese and his wife, Wanda, and then showed them one of the dances they’ll perform during memorial events.
The girls and studio owner Wendy Robbins are making the trip through a WorldStrides program that offers performance travel opportunities.
“Part of the assignment for the dancers was to find out, in their family history, if they have any connection to Pearl Harbor,” Robbins said.
They didn’t. Robbins didn’t either.
But then Robbins was in line at Starbucks the day after Veterans Day and got to talking with Cortese, who’d been manning a donation table.
She gave him a donation, shook his hand, “and I said, ‘I’ve got a couple dancers going to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary,’ ” she recalled.
He said he had been there, too. That he’d actually survived the attack.
Robbins could hardly believe it. “I said, ‘You have to come meet the girls.’”
On Wednesday, Cortese stood on the dance floor, written remarks in hand, as Jasmine, Alexis and other young dancers listened to him speak about the day.
His stepfather was in the Navy and out at sea. He, his mother and older brother had only been in Hawaii a short time and were staying with friends on Center Drive, a couple of blocks from the base’s main gate.
Cortese’s mother woke the boys for Mass about 7:30 a.m. At a little before 8 a.m., they heard a racket.
Cortese ran out front to see a Japanese plane zooming past.
He could see the pilot, wearing a leather cap and goggles, he told the girls. They made eye contact.
Cortese’s brother pulled him inside. When he slipped back out again, he saw a sky full of planes and explosions.
He felt the concussion of the USS Arizona blowing up. He saw so much destruction.
In all, more than 3,500 Americans were killed or wounded, and 18 ships were sunk or run aground.
Cortese and his family evacuated to another part of the island. When they returned a few days later, the front yard had been turned into an anti-aircraft battery manned by Marines. He collected shrapnel, some of which he returned decades later when he attended the 50th anniversary.
He went on to join the Navy and serve in the Korean War. Some time ago, at his children’s urging, Cortese wrote down his memories of the day.
He told the Herald that he was happy to share them with the young dancers. He seemed pleased they were making the trip to Hawaii, to help honor, to remember.
Jasmine and Alexis said they’re looking forward to the trip.
As Cortese spoke, they listened intently. Others in the room, especially the grownups who filtered in, were rapt too.
“It’s very moving. I can’t even comprehend being an 8-year-old child and (experiencing that),” Robbins said. “I think it’s such an honor that we met him.”