GREEN BAY, Wis (WBAY) Firman Balza of Green Bay, one of Wisconsin's last remaining Pearl Harbor survivors, passed away yesterday at the age of 95.
Firman Balza (WBAY file photo)
He leaves behind a legacy of honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Back in 2012, on an Old Glory Honor Flight to Pearl Harbor, Balza vividly recalled one of the darkest days in American History.
"Them Japanese planes came from here and here and here, I don't know how they didn't run into each other there were so many of them," remembered Balza.
Aboard the USS Maryland, Balza survived the attack.
After the war, he returned to Green Bay, started a family and got on with life.
But Balza never spoke about Pearl Harbor, until 2003, when at the age of 80, he visited the Punch Bowl Cemetery in Hawaii.
"A thought occurred to me as I looked out over that cemetery, most of these kids never got to be more than 20 years old and they've been here all this time, and I said if they could say something just exactly what would they say and just like that, I don't know what it was, I can't explain it, like I was possessed, when I got home I started talking to anybody who'd stand still and listen or anybody who would invite me to go and say what I had to say, I would go over there and I'm not talking for myself, I'm talking for all them kids that are still on top of that hill who never got a word to say to anybody and I've been shooting my mouth off about this and I'll probably do it til I die," said Balza.
And Balza did just that, over the past 15 years, speaking to thousands of students in schools around Northeast Wisconsin.
"That's my message to you folks, is that remember freedom isn't free, there is a price and if you fell that you are free and willing to pay the price then you're on my team because I saw many people who didn't get to come home to visit their mother," said Balza to a student gathering at Green Bay East in 2014.
"Firman was a joy, I mean he was a treasure to the community," says Drew MacDonald, Old Glory Honor Flight President.
Deeply admired by many, Balza was known for his humility and sense of humor.
"Firman was a common man, along with the other 16 million of us that fought in World War 2, common men and women doing uncommon things, I look forward to attending his funeral to respect and honor him," says World War Two Veteran Bob Reeners from Hobart, who was part of the U.S. invasion at Normandy.
"You don't replace a Firman Balza, he had so much inside and he was willing to share and you could tell, when you talked to him, you'd look in his eye, the gleam in his eye, it was captivating and it was infectious," adds MacDonald.
"Of all the times I've been here to Pearl Harbor and here in Hawaii, I don't think there's been a time that I've felt so complete in what happened here the last couple days and I'll go to my grave and I'm sure I'll never forget," said Balza in 2012 alongside fellow Pearl Harbor survivors.
And for all of us who had the honor to know Balza, we will never forget him.