Inside the galley at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay in Honolulu, Hawaii, 63 World War II veterans — some who had been at Pearl Harbor — were eager to meet and share their stories with today’s Marines.
Armed with a camera and audio recorder, I joined a small Coffee or Die Magazine team to tell the stories of six Pearl Harbor survivors scattered about a cafeteria holding a group of World War II veterans that the Best Defense Foundation brought back to Hawaii for the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Jack Holder, now 100 years old, was only 19 when he heard a screaming aircraft fly overhead and drop the first bomb to fall on Pearl Harbor. The explosive targeted an aircraft hangar 100 yards away from him. The US Navy flight engineer sprinted outside and saw the rising sun emblem on Japanese warplanes and immediately knew they were under attack.
“I had a thousand thoughts at the time, but the first ones were surprise and anger,” Holder told Coffee or Die. One of his shipmates motioned for him to follow into a ditch leading to a sewer line that was under construction behind their hangar. “One of the pilots seen us, strafed the ditch with machine-gun fire, missed us by probably 3 feet and hit the dirt pile right beside the ditch.”
The Hawaiian Islands were put under martial law after the battle was over. Holder manned a machine-gun pit for three days and three nights. His mother received a card from him 11 agonizing days later, laying to rest fears that her son had been killed in the attack.
Pearl Harbor was not Holder’s last battle. He went on to participate in the Battle of Midway, flying on PBY5-A Catalinas for 48 combat missions over Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, and 56 anti-submarine missions in a B-24 Liberator over Europe.
The room was rich in conversation, making it difficult to hear the veterans, who ranged in age from their late 90s to over 100 years old. I walked over to another Pearl Harbor survivor named Freeman Johnson and immediately formed a connection. We shared the same birthday, March 11, and are both from Massachusetts.
Johnson, 101, was a fireman aboard the USS St. Louis, where he helped keep the boiler room operational, which made an escape from the harbor possible at the onset of the attacks. The St. Louis was the second ship out of the harbor, earning the nickname “Lucky Lou.”
As a Pearl Harbor veteran who saw the war through to the end, Johnson was present for both the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II and the Japanese surrender. He watched the ceremony on the USS Missouri from under the mast of the nearby USS Iowa in Tokyo Bay.
I asked what it means to him to be in the presence of fellow Pearl Harbor survivors. “We’ve been looking forward to this,” Johnson responded, “because it will probably be the last one.”
After lunch, we followed the World War II veterans to the Iwo Jima Memorial, where active-duty Marines from 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, were standing in formation at attention.
Volunteers escorted the World War II veterans in wheelchairs to tents on the wet grass about 100 yards from the memorial as a steady rainfall intensified. The Marines eventually broke from their formation and beelined toward those whose legacy is honored at the memorial the men had just saluted. Nobody dared complain about the deteriorating weather in the presence of veterans who had surely braved far worse.
The smiles of the Marines were met in kind by the World War II veterans. After hearty handshakes and small talk about the rigors of military service, the Marines of 3/3 sang the “Marines’ Hymn” in unison. At least one World War II Marine Corps veteran shed a tear as he sang along.
I walked through muddy puddles with my camera sheltered by my rain jacket and asked a few young Marines about the importance of meeting the living legends before them. “I’m soaking wet,” one Marine said, “but I’m shaking the hands of history.”