Last survivors remember Pearl Harbor attack 75 years ago

A 97-year-old Pearl Harbor veteran recalls fighting against Japanese aircraft 75 years ago.

It looked like it would be a quiet Sunday aboard the USS Aylwin for Robert Van Druff. The young Navy fire controlman second class was reading the funny pages in a Honolulu newspaper.

The Farragut-class destroyer Aylwin was moored at sleepy Naval Station Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The date was Dec. 7, 1941.

"The general alarm went off," Van Druff, 97, recalled recently at his home in Montgomery County. "We were being attacked, planes flying around and dropping bombs."

A Japanese fleet bearing aircraft had steamed across the ocean to launch the surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. By the time the waves of bombers and fighters subsided, 2,403 Americans were dead, 1,178 wounded and more than a dozen ships destroyed or badly damaged.

The attack drew a previously reluctant United States into World War II.

As the nation commemorates the 75th anniversary of the attack Wednesday, Van Druff is one of the last survivors left to tell the story.

The date that will live in infamy is passing from living memory into history. The responsibility for keeping the story alive now falls to historians, museum curators and the descendants of survivors.

Carmen Harding, Van Druff's daughter, edits a newsletter for the families of Pearl Harbor veterans.

"It's important to remember so we don't become passive and not think about what has happened in the past," she said, "because history has a tendency to repeat itself."

The Coast Guard Cutter Taney, the museum ship in the Inner Harbor that is now the last U.S. ship afloat that fought during the attack, will be the site of a ceremony Wednesday. Marine Maj. Gen. John Broadmeadow is scheduled to speak. Christopher Rowsom, the executive director of Historic Ships in Baltimore, said some 200 people are expected to attend.

The Navy and the National Park Service have flown 32 survivors to Hawaii to take part in events planned across the islands.

Another ceremony is planned at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, the first of more than 60 events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the war over the next four years.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the first Japanese leader to visit Pearl Harbor later this month, the White House said Monday.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came as a surprise, but U.S. military officials had long recognized the strategic importance of Hawaii as a base for the Navy in the Pacific.

Hector C. Bywater, a former British intelligence officer, provided readers of The Baltimore Sun detailed coverage of naval affairs in the years between the world wars, and a speculative novel he wrote describing a surprise Japanese attack on American forces is credited with inspiring the attack on Pearl Harbor.

By 1941, the United States was aiding the British war effort against Germany, and relations with Japan were growing increasingly strained, but a military assignment to Hawaii was not considered especially dangerous. Capt. Thomas Haigley, an Army doctor, took his wife and 5-year-old son, Brien, to live with him at Schofield Barracks in Honolulu.

Brien Haigley, now 80, was downstairs at their home on the base that Sunday morning when the attack began.

The Cockeysville businessman doesn't remember seeing any Japanese aircraft, but he does remember hearing them.

"It sounded like the planes were on the top of our roof," he said by phone from Hawaii, where he plans to join the commemoration. "It was that low and that noisy."

The phone rang: Haigley's father was summoned to help treat the mounting casualties. The rest of the family was evacuated into the hills and spent a week sleeping on the floor of a school, Haigley said.

Van Druff said he was inspired to join the Navy while sitting in a movie theater in Colorado Springs watching the 1936 musical comedy "Follow the Fleet" starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

"I thought that seemed a good thing to do — join the Navy — so I did," he said. Van Druff enlisted on turning 18, and was soon assigned to the Aylwin and sent to Hawaii.

There were no senior officers aboard the ship on the morning of the attack, Van Druff said, so the enlisted men took charge of responding to the Japanese. Van Druff took his position on the fire control director, a system that operated the ship's guns, and shot back at the Japanese planes.

At one point, an aircraft passed low enough over the Aylwin that the crew could make out the pilot's face, Van Druff said. The plane peppered the ship with gunfire, ineffectually, before the pilot crashed into the waves nearby.

Aboard the Taney, Howard Hayes — the last known surviving member of its crew from that day — rushed as fast as his feet could carry him to his battle station manning a range finder high on the ship's mast.

"I was up there waving at the Japanese," he recalled on a visit to Baltimore this year.

Hayes plans to mark the anniversary at a ceremony in Carson City, Nev. He said Monday he hopes younger generations remember the attack and the war that followed — "because they should appreciate what they've got right now."

The attack came early in the morning in Hawaii, but it was already afternoon in Baltimore.

The news reached the mainland by radio. The Sun put out an extra edition, reporting at 4 p.m. that Japan had declared war.

The impressionistic account that an Associated Press correspondent in Hawaii phoned in to San Francisco in the midst of the attack unspooled across the page, sentences stretching across eight columns.

Congress voted to declare war on Japan the following day. The nation was plunged into a conflict that raged for nearly four more years, killing more than 60 million people, most of them civilians, before the Japanese surrendered in August 1945.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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