Sean Kirst: A journey to Pearl Harbor that began in Buffalo - The Buffalo News

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Sean Kirst: A journey to Pearl Harbor that began in Buffalo

(An earlier version of this column appeared a year ago, but only on BuffaloNews.com. It has been updated for 2017, to appear in print.)

Ed Stone enlisted in the Navy in Buffalo, in December 1940. He did what the Navy told him. He brought only a light spring jacket.

He remembers that he slept the night before at the YMCA. He remembers the stone steps of the old post office were coated with ice, and it took him three tries to reach the top without breaking his neck. He remembers the heater wasn't working on the train that took him from Buffalo to Rhode Island, and the passenger car was covered with a thin layer of frost, and he shivered until they finally stopped and got it fixed.

Ed was 17. He enlisted in the Navy because it made economic sense. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 11. His father, who struggled with alcohol, went to California, looking for work, and then lost touch. During the Great Depression, Ed and his older brother, Hadley, had to make it on their own in Towanda, Pa.

After high school, the Navy seemed like the best option. To enlist, Ed had to travel to Buffalo.

Barely a year later — on Dec. 7, 1941 — he was an 18-year-old, stationed at Pearl Harbor.

“We were under attack,” Ed said, “and I survived.”

It was 76 years ago today that the Japanese launched a surprise assault on the heart of American Naval power, in Hawaii. More than 2,400 Americans were killed. Within days, the United States was at war with Germany and Japan.

Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the Pacific Fleet, was quoted as saying the number of survivors has dwindled to “next to nothing.” He made that estimate a year ago, meaning the total now is even tinier. Of the living veterans, many have serious issues with their health.

Wedding photo, Ed and Eleanor Stone. (Family photo)

Ed Stone is the exception. It is difficult to believe any Pearl Harbor survivor has more energy, period. Last Sunday, he drove to New Hartford in Central New York to share what he calls "my little talk" on the attack. He came home, packed his bags and drove to Binghamton for a gathering of veterans of his submarine group, then he stopped to pay a visit to a friend in a nursing home.

"She was happy to see me," he said, which made the trip worthwhile.

At 94, Ed, a widower, lives in Syracuse, in the house that he and his wife, Eleanor, bought in 1950. He drives a car with a "Pearl Harbor Survivor" license plate. He sends emails, casually scans photographs and is comfortable on the internet. He stays away from Facebook, mainly because there’s so much there he doesn't think is worth reading.

Two Pearl Harbor vets make a Dec. 7 bet: At 100, they'll meet in Hawaii

He also keeps a drum set in his living room. Ed has played the drums since he was a child. As a teen, he would do occasional gigs at nightclubs with adult bands. He remembers, once, performing for so long “that I had blisters on my fingers from playing polkas.”

When he can’t sleep, he’ll put “big band” music on his up-to-the-minute stereo equipment, and play along.

Often, as he plays, he thinks of Pearl Harbor.

He served on the USS Pyro, an ammunition ship moored at West Loch. It was set far apart, to his good fortune, from the core of the mayhem at “battleship row.” On Dec. 6, the eve of the attack, Ed and some of his buddies went swimming. Ed was a radio operator. When they returned, as a matter of routine maintenance, Ed’s commanding officer asked him to start the emergency radio generator.

That meant using a hand crank. The generator sputtered a little, but Ed got it going.

Maybe, just maybe, that decision saved his life.

He was on radio duty the next morning when the guy he had relieved ran back, alarmed about some “funny looking planes.” Ed looked out to see a Japanese bomber “maybe 100 feet off the water.”

A bomb shattered a nearby concrete deck with such force that it shut off power in the ship. Ed was ordered to go on deck and start the generator. Amid chaos, he grabbed onto the hand crank. The generator fired up easily because he had started it the day before.

Ed got back to his station, fast. Later on, an officer showed him where Japanese strafing had torn apart the deck, not far from where he stood. He'd been wide open, completely vulnerable. If he had delayed, if the generator had stalled and he'd been forced to stay on deck ...

He doesn't need to finish the thought.

From the Pyro, Ed could see black smoke rising above the harbor. The USS Nevada was among the ships that suffered heavy damage.

“Our orders had been to be next to the Nevada on the 8th,” Ed said. “If the attack had been the next day I wouldn’t be here, talking to you.”

Instead, 76 years later, he is around to share a military journey that began in Buffalo. The Pyro also survived a Japanese torpedo attack on the way back to San Francisco. Ed stayed in uniform for the rest of the war, achieving a childhood dream. He was assigned to duty on the USS Bumper, an American submarine.

Once he came home, he was hired by General Electric, in Syracuse. He eventually took a job in sales, involving electronic parts. The work often brought him to Buffalo, a city he describes with familiar affection.

He lost Eleanor 10 years ago, after 62 years of marriage. They'd known each other since grade school, and Ed finds solace by remaining busy. He is a great-grandfather, and he has his drums ...

And he is asked, again and again, to share an increasingly precious and rare eyewitness account of Pearl Harbor.

He has no particular plans for today. A year ago, for the 75th, he journeyed to Hawaii. This year, he is not going to any national event. He knows of only one other living survivor within easy driving distance.

That quiet Dec. 7 comes as a surprise. Ed often speaks at local schools or before community groups. He tells stories of his Great Depression childhood, how he and Hadley had to find their own way once their mother died. He remembers Miss Fox, a sixth-grade teacher who sensed his childhood grief and showed him quiet kindness. He remembers working two jobs while in high school — one, at a lunch counter, that paid 50 cents a night — just to make sure there was food on the table.

And he remembers sitting in his empty house at night, teaching himself to understand the Morse code used by the military, a discipline that would turn him into a radio operator.

All these years later, he is among the handful of living Americans who can describe, from memory, what happened at Pearl Harbor. Yet there is nothing about Ed that speaks to finality. Indeed, he is a ham radio operator. Not long ago, he had to renew his license.

He made sure he’s good through 2026, when he would be 103.

Don't bet against him renewing, again.

Ed Stone blows off steam on his drum set, in his living room. (Sean Kirst/Buffalo News)

As for Pearl Harbor, his longevity makes him see those events with a broad perspective. He reads everything he can find about the attack. He said the real danger — and the larger warning — lies in the hunger of Japanese “warlords,” who whipped their nation into a military fury and then brought it into war.

“I don’t blame the Japanese people,” Ed said. “They’re great. You should see how many leave flowers at the Arizona,” a sunken battleship that serves as an eternal memorial.

What he finds increasingly clear is how Pearl Harbor remains a global pivot, a moment that still affects cascading generations, a moment that reshaped almost everything we know. He is among the last living witnesses, and he has one mission whenever he speaks to a group of students, one truth he hopes they somehow take from what he saw.

“You don’t want to forget it,” Ed said, “because it changed the world.”

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. He invites you to leave your reflections or memories about Pearl Harbor below, as comments, or to email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com. You can read more of Kirst’s work in this archive.

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