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.
He charms visitors 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, 96, 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 world — just the other day he met visitors from New Zealand, China and Texas.
“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 in flames and the USS Oklahoma turned on its side. Twenty-one ships were sunk or heavily damaged that day; 320 aircraft were damaged or destroyed. Some 2,400 sailors, Marines and soldiers died.
‘The best classroom’
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 Hau’ula Elementary School interested in history. After meeting Weatherwax, several students told her they wanted to look up Pearl Harbor. Weatherwax ignited in them a desire to learn.
“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.
Meeting a survivor enlarges or enhances the experience of coming to Pearl Harbor for many, says National Park Service historian Daniel Martinez.
‘A fading fraternity’
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 also are 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.
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 3½ years and you see me here, I’ll be 100 years old.’ ”