He always seemed larger than life. He could be tough if necessary but when it came to his God, his family and his country, he was truly devoted.
The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, brought the young sailor from the hills of West Virginia into a world of unspeakable horror. Dad’s oldest brother, Herman, was onboard the USS Raleigh when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
There isn’t a Dec. 7 that I don’t think about him and the fact that I’m the only person he ever shared the story of that fateful day.
Dad started to take a seat at the kitchen table as Uncle Herman prepared to talk to me. He said, “No, brother, you have to leave the room.” Dad didn’t question the directive.
I just told Uncle Herman to talk -- to take me back to that day in 1941. He looked down at the table and started to relay the events of the attack.
He was only 19 years old, having entered the U.S. Navy at 17 after pleading with his mother to approve his early enlistment.
He knew he could help with the family’s financial responsibilities by entering the military.
Without any of the communication tools we have due to today’s technology, the family did not learn whether he had survived the assault for three days. He swam to shore after the Raleigh was hit by a torpedo.
While some people have stereotypical perceptions about people from West Virginia and Appalachia, there is one certainty: We are raised to be strong. Herman epitomized a leader and he was as our family’s patriarch.
I did see a surprising side of him on that afternoon that he talked about the events of Dec. 7, 1941. He spoke softly as his memories took him back to scenes he would never forget.
I was madly taking notes on a ledger pad as he spoke -- I didn’t want to miss anything because I knew this would be a one-time opportunity. He never talked about the attack with his wife or son.
It was probably in the late 1980s when I wrote his story, and, yet, here I sit typing as chills go up my spine.
Dad was able to convince Uncle Herman and his wife to join him and Mom on a trip to Hawaii. Although it had been more than 40 years since he had been there, his knees nearly buckled as they approached the site of the USS Arizona. I’m sure he became overwhelmed with memories.
When he died in 2009, he was honored for his service. I can still see the flag-draped coffin.
He may not have talked much about that day in 1941, but that country boy survived and served his nation proudly.
On the 50th anniversary in 1991, Uncle Herman, with my Dad’s encouragement, took part in ceremonies at the Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia. He received a medallion for his service to the United States on Dec. 7, 1941.
On Saturday, I’ll think about him and those who did survive, as well as those who lost their lives. They are the real heroes.