ST. PETERSBURG — Ask Eugene Downs how old he is and he'll say 86.
"But my heart is only 36," he'll add, a nod to the transplant that gave him the organ of a 15-year-old and the health to travel to reunions with buddies who had served on the USS Honolulu, a World War II cruiser.
Last week, Downs, who flew in from Sacramento, Calif., was one of about a dozen men who gathered in St. Petersburg for what may be a final reunion.
Ed Smith, 59, a retired St. Petersburg letter carrier, organized the event for his 86-year-old father, James — the reunion's host — and fellow World War II veterans.
"I felt that we are losing about 1,000 a day and we need to honor them as best as we can, whenever we can," he said.
Smith spent the past eight to nine months planning the four-day program, approaching organizations, cajoling sponsorships and getting the city of St. Petersburg to issue a proclamation on the veterans' behalf.
As a result, the men and their families had rooms at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, went to a Rays game at which Downs threw out the first pitch, and visited the Florida Holocaust Museum, which gave them a docent-led tour, refreshments and gift bags. The reunion wrapped up with a banquet in the officers' club at the Armed Forces History Museum in Largo.
At the Florida Holocaust Museum last Wednesday, the group was welcomed by Marty Borell, chairman of the board, and Jay Kaminsky, director of development. Tom Suddarth, 86, wearing a USS Honolulu cap, was one of the veterans who spoke.
"We had a great crew. We had a great leader," said Suddarth, who had traveled from Phoenix. "The USS Honolulu was well-run, well-managed. We were one example of this wonderful country."
According to the Armed Forces History Museum's website, the USS Honolulu CL-48 was in service from June 1938 to February 1947. It was damaged at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and received several commendations through the years.
"I came aboard after Pearl Harbor," said Downs, who remained in the Navy for 22 years.
"We were all 17- , 18-year-old kids when we went to war. The heroes were the ones who didn't make it back with us."
Ed Smith has heard the stories from his father, who went on to the Merchant Marine and retired as an engineer for the New York City Fire Department. James Smith moved to St. Petersburg 15 years ago. When he returned from last year's USS Honolulu reunion, he announced that he had volunteered to host this year's gathering. His son, who had served stateside during the Vietnam War, decided to assist.
The St. Petersburg reunion was important, "because it might be the last time," Downs said.
"Unless we get a volunteer to do it again."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.