By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008
Signalman 1st Class Bert Falardeau had just taken a sip of coffee in the radio hut of the USS Castor when the first wave of Japanese bombers screeched across Pearl Harbor.
"I remember the fellow standing next to me saying, 'They're not kidding around -- you'd better go wake up the captain,' " said Falardeau, 85. As he raced through the ship, the bombers unleashed a torrent of fire that still reverberates in Falardeau's memory "like it happened yesterday. It's always seemed that way."
It was a sentiment echoed by the two other witnesses to Pearl Harbor who joined Falardeau yesterday at a wreath-laying ceremony at the U.S. Navy Memorial in the District to commemorate the 67th anniversary of the attack, which claimed more than 2,300 American lives and prompted the United States to enter World War II.
Rear Adm. Ted Walker, who was only 9 at the time, said he was more excited than frightened when explosions shook his Honolulu neighborhood. While his father, a naval officer, drove off toward the harbor, Walker climbed onto the roof of his house to get a better view.
"We lived in such a benign world until then," Walker said. "We didn't even have violent movies. It just didn't occur to me what danger we were facing."
The ramifications were immediately clear to retired Cmdr. John Budzik, then a 25-year-old ensign. Budzik, 91, said that at the first news of the attack, he and his bunkmates hailed a taxi to get from their onshore quarters to the harbor. They arrived in time to witness the second wave of bombings.
"It was terrible. We saw the planes dive-bombing. We saw the ships going up in flames. More than anything it was just horribly frightening."
All three men said that they felt a special responsibility to keep alive the memory of those who perished.
"I feel very strongly that I represent them," said Budzik, who was chosen to place a wreath of red and white flowers before the memorial's statue of the Lone Sailor as a Navy bugler played taps. "It's the greatest honor anyone can receive."
Falardeau, who left the Navy after the war and worked as a supervisor in a photographic film plant before retiring in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., recently completed a novel based on his naval service.
"I wanted to let people know what we went through down there," he said. "Most books are about the officers. This is about the enlisted men. We're the guys that won the war."
Walker, who gave a short speech as part of the ceremony, said he also hoped to honor the sense of solidarity with which Americans responded to the attack.
"For those of you who are in the audience and don't remember Pearl Harbor but do remember 9/11, just remember the unity of the American people after that terrible event," he told the crowd of several dozen people. "Double it or triple it, and you will see what the impact of Pearl Harbor was on this nation."
Many of those in attendance were also Navy veterans, including a contingent from the Vinson Hall retirement community in McLean, where Budzik lives. But there were also several children.
"I watched a movie about Pearl Harbor, and I've been interested ever since," said a boy in the audience, 10-year-old Oscar Amaya.
His mother, Sally Amaya, smiled proudly. But Amaya, who was raised by a grandfather who fought in World War II, said she also hoped that seeing survivors of Pearl Harbor would help her son comprehend the reality of war.
"It's hard for kids now to understand the sacrifices people made," she said. "He's seen movies and he's read books, but I don't know if he really gets that this happened to real people."