April 20, 2014

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Pearl Harbor survivor thrives meeting visitors

 

Herb Weatherwax, left, talks to a visitor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The 96-year-old retired electrician is one of four Pearl Harbor survivors who volunteers to greet people at the historic site. Today is the 72nd anniversary of the 1941 attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

Herb Weatherwax, left, talks to a visitor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The 96-year-old retired electrician is one of four Pearl Harbor survivors who volunteers to greet people at the historic site. Today is the 72nd anniversary of the 1941 attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — Herb Weatherwax cruises the open-air grounds of the visitors center at Pearl Harbor on a motorized scooter dubbed “Herb’s Hot Rod.” When a woman notices his blue and white cap embroidered with the words “Pearl Harbor Survivor,” he coaxes her over.

“Come get a picture,” Weatherwax says. Her family surrounds his scooter to pose for a snapshot and shake his hand.

The 96-year-old charms visitors in a similar fashion each of the three days a week he volunteers at a memorial for the USS Arizona, a battleship that sank in the 1941 Japanese attack. The retired electrician is one of four former servicemen who lived through the aerial bombing and now greet people at the historic site.

People like hearing stories directly from the survivors, Weatherwax says. And he enjoys meeting people from around the globe — just the other day he met visitors from New Zealand, China and Texas. He joked he wants his photograph “in every home in the world.”

“This is my reason to continue to keep going,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s time for me to say goodbye.”

Weatherwax was a 24-year-old Army private living in Honolulu when he heard loud explosions the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. He saw the sky fill with black smoke and heard anti-aircraft guns firing. When he turned on the radio, he learned Japan was bombing Oahu and all military personnel were to immediately report to their stations.

He saw the USS Arizona enveloped in flames and the USS Oklahoma turned on its side as he headed to his post. Twenty-one ships were sunk or heavily damaged that day while 320 aircraft were damaged or destroyed. Some 2,400 sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed.

Pam Johnson, a sixth grade teacher in a rural community outside Honolulu, said meeting Weatherwax transformed her students.

She had been struggling to get the 12-year-olds from Hauula Elementary School interested in research. After meeting Weatherwax, several students suddenly told her they wanted to look up Pearl Harbor. Weatherwax ignited in them a desire to learn, she said.

“That’s a huge connection,” she says. Her students wouldn’t have developed this interest just by walking through the exhibition halls at the visitors’ center or even the memorial for the Arizona, Johnson says.

“This is the best classroom so far this year,” she says.

At their peak in the early 1990s, 21 survivors volunteered, says National Park Service historian Daniel Martinez.

Meeting a survivor enlarges or enhances the experience of coming to Pearl Harbor for many, Martinez says. It can give people a tangible connection to meet someone who was on site when the bombing happened.

Their numbers are dwindling, however.

“It’s a fading fraternity. Right before my eyes we’re seeing them disappear,” Martinez says.

The three others who remain are also in their 90s. During the week, Weatherwax is joined by Sterling Cale, who was a hospital corpsman assigned to the shipyard dispensary in 1941, and Alfred Rodrigues who was stationed at the mouth of Pearl Harbor. On the weekend, USS Pennsylvania survivor Everett Hyland greets visitors.

This Saturday, they will join a few thousand guests for a public ceremony remembering those who died in the attack 72 years ago.

Weatherwax vows to keep volunteering as long as he is physically able. “I tell people that I meet out here, ‘If you come back in three-and-a-half years and you see me here, I’ll be 100 years old,’” Weatherwax says.