Friday marked 77 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor that began the United States' involvement in World War II. For a couple of days, I kept leaving messages at the home of Ed Stone, a 95-year-old Navy veteran who enlisted in Buffalo and survived as Japanese warplanes swept across the harbor.
Stone has always been extraordinarily vital, a guy who still plays a drum set in his living room to blow off steam, a guy who casually uses the internet when he scans photos he needs to send to friends, a guy undaunted by changes in the world.
I made several calls to Syracuse, where Stone lives now, and I began to grow a little nervous. Then a reader, Gary Rhodes, sent a note saying Stone had again traveled to Pearl Harbor, and on Saturday my phone buzzed from a number I did not recognize. I answered it, and it was Stone, on his mobile phone.
He was calling from Hawaii.
"Just a wonderful experience," he said. "They treat me like a celebrity over here."
More than 2,400 people died in the attack. Every year, the number of witnesses capable of returning to Hawaii grows tinier. Consider this: Stone was 18 in 1941, which means he is one of the younger survivors.
The old post office in Buffalo, one of the city's greatest landmarks, is now one of three campuses for Erie Community College. Stone has a different memory of it. He grew up in Towanda, Pa. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 11. His father left town to look for work in California.
Stone and his older brother, Hadley, had to make it on their own. The Great Depression was still rolling. The military offered work and a sure meal, and Ed Stone – fascinated by radio communications – decided to join.
He signed his papers in Buffalo on a bitter winter day. He recalls the steps of the old post office were so icy they were hard to climb. In the same way as it happened for thousands of others over the years, his military life began in that building.
Stone was on the USS Pyro, an ammunition ship moored at West Loch, during the attack. It was set apart from battleship row, and Stone said it was under orders to position itself alongside the battleships the next day – a point of fate that Stone knows may have saved his life.
The Pyro was strafed but relatively undamaged. Stone eventually served on a submarine, the USS Bumper, then came home after the war to marry Eleanor and raise a family in Syracuse, where he settled because he worked at the time for General Electric.
Eleanor died 12 years ago. Stone misses her, but he has learned the best remedy for loss is staying busy. Last week, a son and a daughter, David Stone and Janet Harding, gave him a ride to the airport, and he flew to Chicago to meet Susan Zenger – another daughter, with her husband David – and together they traveled to Pearl Harbor.
While he always sees and presents himself as plain old Ed Stone, the guy from Towanda, others see him differently at Pearl Harbor. "I get bear hugs from generals and admirals," he said in wonder. He is a regular guy, a retiree, who has trouble understanding that others perceive his humor, his energy, his warmth, as an astounding and resilient bridge.
Indeed, he and another vet who could not make it this year, Ray Garland, still have a standing bet that they will meet at Pearl Harbor in 2023, when they are both 100.
As for remembrance, Stone – who comes home Tuesday – is there for the same reasons he goes every year. He understands that the location of his ship was sheer fate, and that plenty of teenagers and young men who were exactly like him at Pearl Harbor did not survive the day.
Seventy-seven years later, he is there for them. He always makes the point that "the whole damn thing changed the world," and his family quietly notes that he is increasingly aware of the precious nature of memory and witness. At home, he often reads about the war. He will speak to schoolchildren if asked, telling his story to boys and girls who were sometimes born in the 21st century.
It has been 77 years, an impossibly long time. Yet when he returns to Hawaii, when he smells the breeze and stands at the harbor, all that time is gone.
He is still the teenager who enlisted in Buffalo on an icy day, and it is still Pearl Harbor.
Story topics: pearl harbor