'Never Forget'

Veterans of Pearl Harbor live by those words. And yesterday, in Columbia, one survivor sadly saw the connections between two dates that will live in infamy: Dec. 7, 1941, and Dept. 11, 2001

Terrorism Strikes America

September 12, 2001|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

He was a 19-year-old private from Baltimore, stationed in Hawaii at the Army Air Corps' Hickam Field. Now, he is 80 and a retired officer living in Columbia, hearing noises he hasn't heard in 60 years.

When pundits compare yesterday's attacks on the United States to the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, survivor Hugh Roper says they are right in more ways than one.

The weather "was unbelieveably gorgeous" that December morning in Hawaii, he says. Much like yesterday's blue skies and light breeze. "The smell of flowers in the air." He says this from a wicker chair on a quiet deck outside his condominium, where a windchime rings and a tropical hibiscus blooms in the corner.

He'd gotten up early that long-ago Sunday for church. He was coming out of the mess hall in the barracks when he noticed a crowd, looked into the sky and saw Japanese bombers. Pearl Harbor was under attack.

Yesterday, he was headed to the Bank of Columbia when he heard on the radio that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. It dawned on him: Radio was how the world heard about Pearl Harbor.

He called his wife, June, returned home and together they watched the news. Early in the broadcast, when the announcer was talking, his memory filled the scene with sound.

He heard bombs exploding, planes flying overhead, ambulances and screams. He felt the confusion in his stomach and remembered running to an ammunitions shed.

"It was locked. Someone found a 45-caliber pistol and blew the lock off. We ran in and grabbed rifles and, at that point - some of these stories sound like the television now. They're unreal."

The injured on the streets of New York yesterday brought another image: of a dead man from the barracks being carried out not on a stretcher but on an old door.

The ringing phone draws him inside his condo and suspends the memories temporarily. Friends are calling from Atlanta and St. Louis to ask his reaction, knowing he has lived through a scene similar to the one they see.

His son Dean calls from Orlando to say he is safe and his employer, Disney World, has closed. Roper asks if Dean has heard anything from his brother Glenn, who is stationed at Fort Sill. Sixty years ago, his own parents awaited word of his safety. When the telegram finally arrived, it said: "Am safe. Unharmed." It took 12 days to reach Baltimore.

The night of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he did not sleep. His fellow servicemen were so jumpy he heard the rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat of their guns as they shot at mice.

He says now: "My wife told me not to say anything I didn't want to see in the paper, but I tell you: I was terrified."

He had little time then to feel vulnerable or afraid. The Army Air Corps turned him from a cook into a pilot, and it wasn't long before he was flying 50 missions over the China-Burma-India Road. There, he heard a new sound: of bullets being shot at him from the ground.

Sitting now in an easy chair in his living room, he sees on television a plea for blood donations. He is reminded of contracting malaria and dengue fever in the service; he can never donate, no matter the need.

He's read eight books on the bombing, including The Pearl Harbor Ghost which deals with the unsuspecting days that led to the attack. On a stack of books on the coffee table are airline tickets to Ireland. The Ropers were to leave today.

Though his military career and later government jobs took him to Russia, Italy and France, Hawaii has never been far from his mind. He joined the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, and yesterday thought of the group's motto: "Remember Pearl Harbor, Keep America Alert."

"Was America alert on Sept. 11, 2001?" he asks.

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