Ceremony marks Pearl Harbor Day

5 survivors of attack attend harbor service

December 08, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

It went yesterday as it always does. A wreath dropped into the harbor to memorialize Pearl Harbor's fallen floats away. A color guard's reverential strut. The haunting notes of taps.

And the reading, name by name, as a bell tolls, of Maryland servicemen who survived the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, but failed to make it through this past year. Each year, fewer survivors attend the Baltimore ceremony aboard the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Taney, as the bell gets more and more use.

Yesterday, only five white-haired survivors attended, not counting the Taney itself, which is the only combat ship stationed in Hawaii when Japan attacked that is still afloat.

The survivors complimented one another on making it through that morning 63 years ago, grew emotional as they remembered how close they came to the alternative and applauded the bravery of today's troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Edward T. Robertson, one of the five attending Pearl Harbor veterans, was the only one to share his story with the crowd.

"I remember vividly that day," Robertson began. "The air at Pearl Harbor was like a baby's breath. You could feel it."

The morning started with a motorcycle ride from Fort Shafter to a nearby air base. While he was up in the control tower, Robertson recalled, "All hell broke loose."

Robertson's remembrance is one of only 5,514 stories that can still be heard live - that's how many Pearl Harbor veterans are still living, according to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

In Maryland, there are just 115 - the bell rang 11 times this year. One toll was for Hugh M. Roper, who, like Robertson, told his Pearl Harbor story at last year's ceremony.

The nation should treasure every last one of those stories, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said at the ceremony.

"It's the greatest testimony," he said, "about what's right with America."

"When your country needed you, you were there," Blum told the five. "You suppressed your own fears, your own doubts and you did what needed to be done."

Like the young soldiers who went on to weather so much after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Taney that day was a novice vessel.

Built in Philadelphia in the 1930s, the ship was named for Marylander Roger B. Taney, who was named chief justice of the United States in 1836. It arrived in Honolulu in 1937 for its first assignment, rescuing boats in trouble and intercepting opium smugglers.

Yet in 1940, with World War II on the horizon, the military began transforming the Taney into a ship of war, Baltimore Maritime Museum Curator Paul Cora said.

The morning of the attack, the Taney, known as the "queen of the Pacific," was docked at Pier 6, eight miles from Pearl Harbor. The Taney crew opened fire on Japanese planes flying over the island. Historians credit them, Cora said, with stopping an attack on the Honolulu power plant.

After the war, the Taney resumed life as a Coast Guard cutter and became a museum in Baltimore in 1987.

Year after year, as he attends Pearl Harbor Day services with fewer and fewer veterans of that attack, Cora feels an increasing responsibility to preserve the Taney. It's one of the few tangible artifacts, and one that might be able to continue telling the story of that day.

"Most of the people I know from the war are gone now," said the 83-year-old Robertson. "And my time is coming."

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