As a young Army officer in Oahu, Hawaii, Edward T. Robertson spent the first days of December 1941 setting up guns and cannons on lush hills surrounding Pearl Harbor.
"The Army was on full alert," the 83-year-old veteran said yesterday. "We were told we were on the verge of war with Japan. We were well-equipped, contrary to what a lot of people think."
But on Dec. 6, Robertson said he received word from his commanding officer that the rumored Japanese attack was off. He and his unit packed up the artillery and put it back in storage.
The next morning, Robertson left his barracks at Fort Shafter on a motorcycle and headed to an Army air base nearby. He was to pick up a schedule for incoming aircraft. He had just reached the control tower when Japanese fighters appeared on the horizon.
"We knew what they were," said Robertson. "We knew the sound of their engines."
At the time, Robertson had no idea how devastating the attack would be, but as he headed back to the fort he passed the harbor -- a major U.S. naval base -- and watched in horror as bomb-torn warships sank.
"Sailors were jumping overboard," Robertson said. "I was a small guy, but I was a good swimmer. I went in, and I did what I could to bring quite a few of them out."
Robertson will share his Pearl Harbor story today at a memorial service on the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Taney, the last surviving ship from the attack still afloat. Named after Roger B. Taney -- a Marylander who was named chief justice of the United States in 1836 -- the vessel is docked at Pier 5 in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
The event, sponsored annually by the Baltimore Maritime Museum and National Historic Seaport of Baltimore, will begin at 11:45 a.m.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, will also speak.
At this year's event, a city police helicopter will fly over the harbor and drop a memorial wreath into the waters below, said John Kellett, executive director of the maritime museum.
There will be a 21-gun salute in honor of the 2,390 men who lost their lives during the attack -- which led the United States to declare war on Japan -- as well as a rendition of taps.
"Ever since 9/11 there has been more of a direct, emotional connection," said Kellett, referring to terrorist attacks of three years ago. "Pearl Harbor Day is more than a historical marker today."
For Robertson, feelings of loss, as well as great disappointment, will always be associated with the historic date.
"One of my very best friends was killed that day," said Robertson, who was born in Baltimore and enlisted in the Army in 1939. "I consider myself lucky to be alive."
For years after the war, even after he returned to Baltimore, married his sweetheart and started work at Bethlehem Steel, Robertson said he felt guilty about the military loss.
"I was somewhat ashamed for being at Pearl Harbor," said the veteran, who retired from his job as an electrical supervisor at the Baltimore County plant in 1982. "We lost the fight, and it could have been so easily avoided. ... We could have turned the tables."