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Pearl Harbor survivor reflects on day that 'changed the world'

Ed Stone enlisted in the U.S. 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 through their teen years, 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.”

The license plate on Ed Stone's car. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

The license plate on Ed Stone's car. (Sean Kirst)

Today is the 75th anniversary of the morning when 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.

Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was quoted this week in The Wall Street Journal as saying the number of survivors  has dwindled to “next to nothing.” In the old days, thousands of veterans who lived through the attack would converge on Pearl Harbor for the anniversary.

[A gallery of photos of the day that will live in infamy]

This year, the number returning is around 100.

Among those at Pearl Harbor, as you read this:

Ed Stone.

“I’ve been packed for three days,” Ed said last Saturday, the day before he left for the airport with David Stone, one of his four children.

When Ed Stone can't sleep, the 93-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor plays the drums, in his living room. (Sean Kirst)

When Ed Stone can't sleep, the 93-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor plays the drums, in his living room. (Sean Kirst)

At 93, Ed, a widower, lives in the Valley neighborhood of 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 uses the Internet. He stays away from Facebook, he said, only because there’s too much there that he prefers not to read.

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.

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 ....

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, 75 years later, he is here to tell the story. The Pyro would survive a Japanese torpedo attack on the way back to San Francisco. Ed served for the rest of the war. He would eventually achieve 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 later 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 eyewitness account of his story.

Ed often speaks at local schools or before community groups. He was surprised and moved when a student at Fowler High School, in Syracuse, was so affected by the talk that he gave Ed a meticulous pencil drawing of the Pyro. Ed has offered his memories so many times that he’ll sometimes "mix it up" with new details, such as tales of his Great Depression childhood.

Ed Stone at Fowler High School, in Syracuse: At 93, a message of world change that resonates with youths. (Image courtesy Ed Stone)

Ed Stone at Fowler High School, in Syracuse: At 93, a message of world change that resonates with youths. (Image courtesy Ed Stone)

He remembers 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 quiet 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, at 93, that speaks to finality. He has returned to Pearl so many times he has actually lost count, and he hardly expects this time to be his last. Indeed, Ed 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.

Ed Stone's cap: A Pearl Harbor survivor. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

Ed Stone's cap: A Pearl Harbor survivor. (Sean Kirst)

As for Pearl Harbor, his longevity makes him see the attack with even broader perspective. He reads everything he can find about the war. 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 eternal memorial.

What is increasingly clear to him is how Pearl Harbor remains a global pivot, a moment that is still affecting 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 contributing 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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