The last warship still afloat that figured in the Battle of Pearl Harbor is a Coast Guard cutter anchored at the base of Federal Hill.
The Taney, christened in 1936 for the Maryland-born Roger Brooke Taney, U.S. attorney general, was decommissioned in 1986 and turned over to Baltimore.
The deck of the 327-foot cutter will be the setting for ceremonies at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow marking the 50th anniversary of the historic attack that propelled the United States into World War II.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Taney was about eight miles away from the main U.S. fleet at the Pearl Harbor naval base. Anchored at the docks of downtown Honolulu, she was protecting a power plant.
William Reitz, an 84-year-old Cumberland resident, was a chief electrician's mate stationed on the cutter.
Recently he recalled how ill-prepared the fleet was before the attack. "There were absolutely no precautions," he said.
"I can remember sitting on a bus [making a trip from downtown Honolulu to Pearl Harbor] sitting next to this lieutenant commander. He was mumbling to himself, 'This is very lax. This is almost criminal. All those ships just sitting there bunched up. And the planes on the ground all together. One bomb could put us out of commission.' He also said he was powerless to do anything," Reitz recalled.
That incident on the bus happened some weeks before the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. Reitz's memory of events beginning on that day is precise: "We were eating breakfast when a horn went off and called everyone to general quarters. Everyone got mad and started cussing. A voice came over an intercom and said, 'This is not a drill.' Most people didn't believe it.
"When our guns started shooting and at the same time a few bombs started dropping on the power plant, people believed it wasn't a drill," Reitz said.
Japanese planes, bound for Pearl Harbor, considered the Honolulu power plant a military objective. The Taney's defense is credited with saving the plant.
"We didn't leave the dock until early the next morning when we went looking for submarines. Six American bombers flew in and they were mistaken for enemy planes. Four were shot down. It was a terrible mistake. There were guns shooting everywhere. It was the biggest fireworks display I ever saw.
"There was one fellow on the Taney with me who flatly refused to believe that the Pearl Harbor attack wasn't just a drill. We sailed out in the Pacific, but after a few weeks on patrol, came back in and went right through Pearl Harbor, where we hadn't been before. We stood on the deck and looked at all the wreckage. He couldn't even speak."
Reitz said he will try to make tomorrow's ceremony, but added, "My health may keep me away."
The Taney saw service in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of World War II, then went on to serve in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Later, it was active in peacetime search-and-rescue operations and conducted 11 drug busts.
Plans call for the Taney to be towed next year to a permanent home at the Baltimore Maritime Museum.It will be open to the public along with the submarine USS Torsk and the Lightship Chesapeake.