Jack Rogo is tough. He's funny. He gets to the point when he's talking to you. And when he begins the story about having breakfast in Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed, he launches into a cadence that years of practice provide.
He's the guy you want to tell you about the day World War II started.
In his garage-turned-accounting-office in North Hollywood, Rogo is surrounded by accounting textbooks, tax laws and what he calls his “bible,” a binder full of his medals and notes he's accumulated over the years.
“All I can do is give an eyewitness account of how it affected me,” he said.
On the morning of the attack, Rogo was eating breakfast in the mess hall of Ford Island, in the center of the harbor. As bombs went off Rogo recalled thinking it might be a testing exercise.
He went out to the lanais to see a Japanese plane completing its run. He was so close, he absently waved to the plane's rear gunner. And he got a wave back.
“It was the first attack I was in, or anybody was in, like that,” Rogo said. “I didn't know what the hell was going on.”
Rogo, now 91, has given his presentation to the students at Bellarmine Jefferson High School every year for the last five years. He shows them a picture of himself at age 20, and asks them to remember the young man who enlisted just a few weeks out of high school, a man who in one day was thrown into war.
Rogo remained in Hawaii until 1943, when he left on some missions that to this day he can't talk about. His career then led him to Philadelphia where he met a young Marine corporal named Winnifred, a gal from New York City whom he convinced to move back to California with him. They were married 61 years, and he still lives in the NoHo tract house he bought in 1947 — a “box house on a sand pit” before he fixed it up, installed a pool and made it his own.
“It was very easy to drive into the wrong driveway,” he said of the neighborhood's original look.
Rogo considers himself an introvert. He initially started talking about his Pearl Harbor experiences because there was a lull in a program he attended at the Burbank VFW. Over the years his story has been recounted in several books (though not all of them got it right, he says).
On Dec. 7, on a single day, heroes were made. There are many more, like Rogo, who want to remind the world that heroes acted every day after, for four years and then some.
Their numbers are dwindling.
Rogo was a member of the Burbank chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn. until Dec. 31, 2011 when the national organization disbanded.
He meets with some of his fellow veterans for lunch still. Not all have his zest for life — only in his late 80s did Rogo try sky diving. He also recently got a tattoo on his upper arm, honoring his service to his country.
For all his adventure-seeking, Rogo loves to talk to people about his Pearl Harbor days, to describe to them the view from the front row of history.
“I get an absolute thrill out of it, and I never thought I'd do something like this,” he said.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he isn't hearing about history from those who lived it, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.