HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — A witness to Pearl Harbor and a USS Arizona survivor added to their World War II legacies over the past week as big plans continue to unfold for the 75th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks on Oahu.
Honolulu native Herb Weatherwax, who was in the Army when he saw the Arizona ablaze and later fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Europe, on Sunday met Akie Abe, wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, when she made a first-of-its-kind visit to the USS Arizona Memorial.
Weatherwax, 99, volunteers at the Arizona Memorial visitor center four times a week.
No serving Japanese prime minister has ever been to Pearl Harbor, and the stop prompted speculation that Abe himself might visit in connection with the 75th anniversary of the attacks in a show of reconciliation and peace.
Don Stratton, meanwhile, one of just six remaining survivors from the doomed battleship, was on Oahu with his son, Randy, for filming of a PBS segment on the use of remotely operated vehicles to reach interior spaces of the Arizona. The segment is slated to be released in conjunction with the big upcoming anniversary.
The commemorative events are scheduled for Dec. 1-11 and are expected to draw thousands of visitors from around the world and to include media coverage that will reach millions. Event planners expect an aircraft carrier or similar big-deck ship for the anniversary.
“Akie Abe’s visit to the memorial was a private visit,” said Jacqueline Ashwell, superintendent of World War II Valor in the Pacific and Honouliuli national monuments. “It appears that she went to the memorial with the rest of the visitors on Sunday morning, aboard the first public boat of the day. At this time we have no indication that Prime Minister Abe will be present for the 75th commemoration of National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.”
“Uncle Herb” Weatherwax was at the visitor center when Akie Abe greeted him.
“When they introduced me to her, I said what a beautiful woman she was,” the Kailua resident said Monday.
Weatherwax said the two had to communicate through an interpreter, but “it was a wonderful thing to get together.”
“She’s the prime minister’s wife, and I think that’s an honor (to meet her),” he added.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Weatherwax was an Army draftee with the 298th Infantry Regiment on a weekend pass when he heard explosions and a radio call for all military personnel to report to their stations.
He was on his way to Schofield Barracks when he saw the Arizona engulfed in flames and an overturned USS Oklahoma.
“I was shocked. And, of course, we were confused,” Weatherwax said.
He later endured freezing temperatures in the Battle of the Bulge in an area between the artillery bombardments that rained overhead from both sides of the conflict in late 1944 and early 1945. Although he fought against the Germans, he witnessed the start of the war against the Japanese in Hawaii.
Despite that, Weatherwax said, “I never did think bad about the Japanese people. It was the leader of the Japanese people that I didn’t think much about.”
The goodwill ambassador at the Arizona Memorial, who has an ever-present smile as he greets visitors, added, “I’m the type of person, I don’t have enmity at any other people at all. I don’t hate people. I love people.”
For Stratton, who was a 19-year-old sailor in a boxy steel gun director above the bridge on Dec. 7, 1941, when a Japanese aerial bomb set off a chain-reaction explosion and sent a huge fireball burning across the ship, the visits to Pearl Harbor still aren’t easy.
A total of 1,177 sailors and Marines were killed, and most are still entombed on the sunken ship.
“For me, when I go aboard to pay homage to all those good (shipmates) that didn’t make it, the Marines and sailors, and I see a lot of names that I recognize, I thank the good Lord that I am here,” the 94-year-old said.
Stratton was with seven others in that metal box-turned-oven that left him with skin-charring burns over 65 percent of his body. One had a fatal head injury, another left to get ammunition and was never seen again and six of the badly burned men — Stratton included — pulled themselves hand-over-hand across a rope tied to the repair ship Vestal.
PBS attempted to reach deeper into the Arizona with remotely operated vehicles and asked Stratton and his son, Randy, to be in Hawaii to witness the results.
A lot of encrustation, an old dial phone and a porthole were among interior elements that swam into view.
“It was kind of interesting for me to even get to think about seeing it,” the Colorado Springs, Colo., resident said Monday before heading home. “But I’ve got a lot of memories — I mean, a lot. I went in the shrine room (on the memorial). So many names that I recognized.”
Just a few months ago, Randy Stratton said, he and his father were shown pictures from a separate remotely operated vehicle dive that went into a high-ranking officer’s quarters on the Arizona — either the captain or the admiral — and on a hanger in the now-still water was his dress white uniform.
“You could see that it (was) white, but it’s more of a dirty color,” the son said. “But you could still see it on the hanger. And it’s not even moving. It’s just sitting there — with the medals still on it.”
A website put together by the Arizona families, arizonafinalsalute.com, seeks to raise funds to help the survivors and their families return to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary. Don Stratton’s biography, “All the Gallant Men: The Untold Story of Donald Stratton,” comes out in November.
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