A 96-year-old veteran tells stories about a day that lives in infamy
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 6, 2013
Herb Weatherwax cruises the open-air grounds of the Visitor Center at Pearl Harbor on a motorized scooter dubbed "Herb's Hot Rod." When a woman notices his blue-and-white cap embroidered with the words "Pearl Harbor Survivor," he coaxes her over.
"Come get a picture," Weatherwax says. Her family surrounds his scooter to pose for a snapshot and shake his hand.
The 96-year-old charms visitors in a similar fashion each of the three days a week he volunteers at a memorial for the USS Arizona, a battleship that sank in the 1941 Japanese attack. The retired electrician is one of four former servicemen who lived through the aerial bombing and now greet people at the historic site.
People like hearing stories directly from the survivors, Weatherwax says. And he enjoys meeting people from around the globe — just the other day he met visitors from New Zealand, China and Texas. He joked that he wants his photograph "in every home in the world."
"This is my reason to continue to keep going," he says. "Otherwise, it's time for me to say goodbye."
Weatherwax was a 24-year-old Army private living in Honolulu when he heard loud explosions the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. He saw the sky fill with black smoke and heard anti-aircraft guns firing.
When he turned on the radio, he learned Japan was bombing Oahu and that all military personnel were to immediately report to their stations.
He saw the USS Arizona enveloped in flames and the USS Oklahoma turned on its side as he headed to his post. Twenty-one ships were sunk or heavily damaged that day, and 320 aircraft were damaged or destroyed. Some 2,400 sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed.
Pam Johnson, a sixth-grade teacher, said meeting Weatherwax transformed her students.
She had been struggling to get the 12-year-olds from Hauula Elementary School interested in research. After meeting Weatherwax, several students suddenly told her they wanted to look up Pearl Harbor.
Weatherwax ignited in them a desire to learn, she says.
"That's a huge connection," she says, adding that her students wouldn't have developed this interest just by walking through the exhibition halls at the Visitors Center or even the Arizona Memorial.
"This is the best classroom so far this year," she says.
At their peak in the early 1990s, 21 survivors volunteered, says National Park Service historian Daniel Martinez.
Meeting a survivor enlarges or enhances the experience of coming to Pearl Harbor for many, Martinez says. It can give people a tangible connection to meet someone who was on site when the bombing happened.
Their numbers are dwindling, however.
"It's a fading fraternity," Martinez says. "Right before my eyes we're seeing them disappear."
The three other survivors who volunteer are also in their 90s. During the week, Weatherwax is joined by Sterling Cale, who was a hospital corpsman assigned to the shipyard dispensary in 1941, and Alfred Rodrigues, who was stationed at the mouth of Pearl Harbor. On the weekend, USS Pennsylvania survivor Everett Hyland greets visitors.
Saturday they will join a few thousand guests for a public ceremony remembering those who died in the attack 72 years ago.
Weatherwax vows to keep volunteering as long as he is physically able.
Audrey McAvoy, Associated Press
|REMEMBERING THE PEARL HARBOR ATTACK
» The National Park Service and the Navy will host a Pearl Harbor memorial service at 7:45 a.m. Saturday on the lawn of the Visitor Center at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
» This year's keynote speaker will be Max Cleland, secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Among other ceremony highlights: music by the Navy's U.S. Pacific Fleet Band, wreath presentations and echo taps. At 7:55 a.m., the precise moment the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began 72 years ago, a moment of silence will be observed. The ceremony will conclude with a "walk of honor" by Pearl Harbor survivors and other World War II veterans through an honor cordon of military service members and Park Service men and women.
» Seats for the general public are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Free parking and shuttles will be available at Aloha Stadium, with shuttles motoring to and from the Visitor Center from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. The ceremony can be watched online (both live and later) at youtube.com/veteransunited.
» The annual Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade is set to get underway at 6 p.m. Saturday on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. It will feature members of each of the branches of the military, marching bands representing the namesake states from battleships moored at Pearl Harbor, and Hawaii cultural and civic organizations.
» The event will begin with an opening ceremony at Ainahau Triangle near Fort DeRussy.