The fallen remembered

Pearl Harbor Day ceremony honors victims -- and survivors

December 08, 2008|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

On previous December Sevenths, Thomas Talbott marked the anniversary alongside a group of men who also survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Yesterday - 67 years after what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called "a date which will live in infamy" - Talbott, 87, was one of just two survivors who made it to a ceremony aboard the Coast Guard cutter Taney in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. As he waited for the program to begin, he sat next to Warren Coligny, also 87. Coligny, who was bundled up and sitting in a wheelchair, has Alzheimer's disease.

"We are a dying breed," said Talbott, who summers in Lochearn and winters in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

As a brisk wind blew across the water, bagpipers in kilts and bare knees - surrounded by others carrying American flags - opened the event, attended by several dozen people, mostly veterans. Later, a wreath of flowers was tossed into the water, and a three-volley rifle salute honored the lives lost.

"We're here today to remember the people who were involved in that fateful day, the people who defended the U.S. then," and those who continue to defend the nation to this day in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Alan Walden, the master of ceremonies.

He spoke not only of those who died during the Japanese attack on a Sunday morning 67 years ago - about 2,400 of them - but the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives in World War II. He also honored another survivor of the attack: the Taney, the last floating warship that was at Pearl Harbor that day, berthed at Pier 6 in Honolulu.

"Those bloodstains that were shed upon these decks were shed for freedom," Walden said.

"Any sailor will tell you a ship is really a living creature," said Adm. Thad W. Allen, commandant of the Coast Guard, "and if you listen closely, you will hear this ship tell the story of Pearl Harbor. Sixty-seven years ago, the words 'Air raid. Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill' echoed through the ship at 0755."

The crew of the Taney repelled an attack on a nearby power plant by throwing up "a curtain of lead," Allen said. "Nobody expected a fight that Sunday morning," he said. "But fight they did."

Talbott spoke of his experience at Pearl Harbor, as a young corporal on guard duty at the time of the attack. He and his fellow Marines had spent many months arming Midway Island with guns. The group was scheduled to return to the states in January. "It was a beautiful Sunday morning, just like this," he said. "Then the world came to an end, the way I felt. For the next 72 hours, chaos reigned."

Even though so many lives were lost, Talbott said, he considers himself lucky. He knows that if the Japanese came back and attacked the tank farm where he was and the surrounding oil reserves, the entire place would have been set ablaze and many more would have died. "We were blessed," he said.

Florence Strawser of Bowie brought her father, Coligny, to the ceremony even though this time, she said, he probably wouldn't understand what was going on.

Coligny served aboard the USS Zane, a minesweeper. He used to tell her about that day, when he spotted planes above and wondered why they were doing maneuvers on a Sunday. Then he saw the painting on the side of one of the planes, a picture of a sun. "He realized something was going on," Strawser said. The crew started shooting, only to realize the ship's guns were loaded with blanks.

She wanted her father to be at the ceremony yesterday, despite the chilly weather, because being in the Navy always meant a lot to him, as did being on the Taney on previous Pearl Harbor Days. "This may be the last one," she said, "so I thought I'd do whatever it takes to get him here today."

Talbott, wearing a watch he bought on Dec. 5, 1941, which still keeps time, said the message yesterday shouldn't just be about remembering what happened at Pearl Harbor. He said people mustn't forget that the nation is always at risk and needs to be prepared for history to repeat itself, as it did on Sept. 11, 2001.

"We're vulnerable at all times because there are people who don't like us because they don't have liberty like we do," he said. "We have freedom. Freedom is one of the most precious things."

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