Fewer Pearl Harbor Day vets in Hawaii
|Photo gallery: Pearl Harbor Day veterans|
|||Pearl Harbor survivor recounts attack, aftermath|
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
They are the ironmen of their generation, living through Dec. 7, 1941, and the World War that followed, and defying the pitfalls of age and health into their 80s and 90s.
The five Pearl Harbor survivors who regularly volunteer at the USS Arizona Memorial visitor center, talking and joking with tourists and signing autographs, may have lost a step or two, but not their wit.
"He's the old man right here," Alfred Rodrigues, 87, said while cocking his head toward Herb Weatherwax. "How old are you, Dad?"
Weatherwax, sitting at the same table, stated that he's 90.
"It's been 90 beautiful years. Beautiful," said the former soldier. That excludes some dark times, though, such as witnessing the destruction of Pearl Harbor and Wheeler Army Airfield.
When a 55-year-old woman from New Jersey swoops over, plants a kiss on Rodrigues' cheek and says "Thank you" and starts to walk away, Weatherwax chimes in, "Hey, come back!" widening his ever-present smile.
That's how it goes when the aging survivors are holding court. But it's a limited engagement, and they are a dwindling resource whose presence has become that much more precious as their ranks have thinned.
Ten years ago, about 15 Pearl Harbor survivors were part of the pool of veterans who mingled with visitors. Several years ago, that number had fallen to 10, and now there are just the five.
One of the regulars, Air Force veteran Bill Cope, died on Nov. 25 at age 94.
"The attrition level is here, and we know that every day that they show up, it's sort of like a gift," said Arizona Memorial historian Daniel Martinez.
The numbers are reflective of the nationwide loss of the "greatest generation," and of the ever-shrinking survivor turnout for the next anniversary of the attack that launched the United States into World War II.
On Friday, fewer than 50 are expected at Kilo pier for the 66th anniversary. Eighteen survivors from the battleship USS Oklahoma — a large number — are coming for the dedication of a new memorial on Ford Island.
"Health issues are probably the biggest thing," said Skip Wheeler, a National Park Service ranger at the Arizona memorial who coordinates the volunteer effort.
The regular volunteers are drawn from both Navy and Army ranks.
Robert Kinzler was in the 25th Infantry Division. During the attack, his company was ordered to take up a position at Roosevelt High School, and Kinzler saw the Pearl Harbor destruction.
Weatherwax, who was born in Honolulu in 1917, received the instruction to report to his duty station at Schofield Barracks that morning. Late in the war, his unit joined up with Russian soldiers in western Germany.
Sterling Cale, a Navy corpsman on Dec. 7, 1941, was in charge of the burial party removing bodies from the USS Arizona.
Everett Hyland was serving aboard the USS Pennsylvania, which was in drydock No. 1 on that morning, and was seriously wounded when a Japanese bomb exploded near his battle station.
And Rodrigues, who was born in Kapa'a, Kaua'i, was at Bishop's Point at Pearl Harbor. He was issued a .30-caliber rifle and started shooting at the Japanese planes that passed overhead.
Rodrigues had just sat down for breakfast when the general alarm sounded.
"Just before the general alarm sounded, we heard a lot of explosions," Rodrigues said. "But you know, many times, they were working in Pearl Harbor, dredging the harbor, so we thought nothing of it."
Then he saw the rising sun on the planes and knew O'ahu was being attacked.
"They were flying low enough to see the pilots' faces," Rodrigues added. "It was scary. It was scary."
There are other survivors who make less frequent appearances at the visitor center.
Wheeler, the volunteer coordinator, said Ray Emory, who served on the USS Honolulu and lives in Kahala, is always willing to lend a hand.
Two times a year, Al Bodenlos, 87, an Army veteran who vividly recalls the Arizona blowing up and the Oklahoma rolling over, comes in from California to volunteer.
Last week, he was there at the visitor center with Cale, Rodrigues and Weatherwax "to harass my buddies — make sure they are still above ground," he said with a laugh.
Bodenlos had hip and knee surgery over the summer, forcing him to cancel one of his regular trips to Hawai'i.
Whether visitors know so few remain to sign an autograph or not, there is the obvious understanding that these are old men from a long-ago war.
White hair peeks from their blue and white Pearl Harbor survivor caps, wrinkled hands are covered in age spots, and the hula girl tattoo on Cale's forearm that he paid $2 for in 1940 two doors down from the Black Cat Cafe is now more of a hula blur.
One after the other, tourists approach the vets reverently to take a picture or get an autograph. Cale estimates he signs his name a couple of hundred times a day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He's usually at the visitor center from 6:30 a.m. until about noon.
Donna Corrigan, 40, and her son, Alex, 13, came in from Idaho for the UH game against Boise State.
Alex Corrigan asked for the veterans' autographs on a reproduction Star-Bulletin newspaper with the headline, "War! Oahu Bombed By Japanese Planes" for his history teacher.
"We haven't done anything on Pearl Harbor yet, but last year in seventh grade we watched "Tora! Tora! Tora!," he said. He added that it was "kinda cool that they fought for our country."
"And that they experienced it firsthand," added his mother. "Just trying to imagine what they went through — I can't imagine."
Those firsthand accounts won't be around forever. The veterans themselves know it most of all.
Rodrigues said there are only 19 members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association still on O'ahu.
"The Arizona had 233 survivors, and I just got word ... that there are only 25 living," he said. "I hate to say it, but we know that our time is coming. I don't go to church, but I say my prayers."
In the meantime, they are ambassadors of history from a time of world conflict and, ultimately, peace with Japan and Germany.
That still-existing link was demonstrated when a group of Japanese schoolgirls from Suma-noura High School presented chains of 2,000 origami paper cranes to the veterans.
"Paper cranes means peace and the importance of life," said teacher Harumi Akamatsu.
"We are at peace now. I just want to tell you," Weatherwax told the group.
Later, he said that "I'm one of those that feel if you want to have peace of mind, you have to forgive."
Jerry Daniels, a 40-year-old soldier vacationing here from Hilsborough, N.C., told the vets he, too, could not imagine what they had gone through in World War II. He told the group he had been to Iraq four times.
"We are the greatest generation of has-beens," Bodenlos told the soldier. "You are the new greatest generation."
Martinez, the Arizona Memorial's historian, said hundreds of "oral histories" from survivors have been recorded over the years. But the real-life link in the not-too-distant future will be gone.
"These stories will remain alive, but what will be a loss is for the visitors, because the visitors have a chance today to touch history by meeting (the veterans), getting an autograph and a picture with them," Martinez said. "That's going to be lost, and that is irreplaceable."
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.