A small child in a Spiderman hat darted out in front of James Hardwick’s wheelchair.
For the first time all afternoon, the man in the USS Honolulu hat broke into a smile.
At age 18, Hardwick witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Now, 71 years later, he and 35 other World War II veterans came to the memorial Friday to commemorate the anniversary of what President Franklin Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.” Their trips to D.C. from around the country were sponsored by Honor Flight, a nonprofit that offers veterans a chance to see Washington’s war memorials without having to pay for their travel.
Dec. 7, 1941, was supposed to be a day of relaxation for Hardwick. He’d been in the Navy about a year. On Dec. 5 — which also happened to be his 18th birthday — his name had been drawn to spend a weekend of rest and relaxation on Hawaii’s Nanakuli Beach.
He was dozing after a luau, but was awakened by explosions. Black smoke and flames billowed from the harbor. He saw one ship capsize and another settle in the water.
The sailors on Nanakuli were told to get back to their ships immediately. Just before he boarded the USS Honolulu, a near hit from a bomb damaged its hull.
Hardwick, now 89, had no idea what was happening, he said. He surmised that the United States was being invaded.
“I was standing topside, and I thought, ‘My God, how long is this going to last?’ ” he said.
The damage to his ship was repaired by January. He spent the next three years in the Pacific, fighting in battles that included Guadalcanal and Saipan. Then he came home, used the G.I. bill to put himself through engineering school, and married a girl he met at his decommissioning ball.
While at the World War II Memorial on Friday, Hardwick asked to stop in front of one of the fountains. Silently, he touched the words “Pearl Harbor” with his cane.
Many World War II veterans kept quiet about their wartime experiences after coming home, said Earl Morse, the founder of Honor Flight. He created the program in 2005, a year after the memorial opened, when he realized many of the World War II veterans he treated as a physician’s assistant in Springfield, Ohio, couldn’t afford to fly to Washington.
But after veterans make it to the memorial and see concrete evidence that their sacrifices are valued, they often open up, Morse said. On the flights back home after the program ends, these men in their 90s can’t stop talking.
“We literally get to change the last chapter of their lives,” he said.
Honor Flight has spread across the country. Morse estimates that the program has brought tens of thousands of veterans to Washington.
Four of those veterans are now the subject of a documentary, “Honor Flight,” which the organization screened Friday after a short Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony at the memorial.
Julian Plaster, one of the featured veterans, joined the Navy two months after Pearl Harbor. He served in the Pacific as a cook and a grave-digger, and he too had trouble describing his experiences when he came home.
“I used to get the shakes, and there was nobody to talk to,” Plaster said. “We went into [returning to civilian life] the same way we went into battle: It was a job and we were gonna get it done.”
Being in the movie helped him open up to his relatives, he said.
Hardwick said he was never afraid to talk about his experiences. They just didn’t come up in conversation with most of his children and grandchildren.
But, as he was wheeled around the memorial, he said he hoped younger members of his family would come see the memorial sometime.