Michael S. Rosenwald (c) 2014, The Washington Post. WASHINGTON — Nearly 73 years to the minute after Japanese bombs began falling on his battleship at Pearl Harbor, Robert MacLennan sat in his wheelchair at the World War II Memorial in Washington on Sunday, his head down to avoid the cold and perhaps the moment.
“He didn’t talk about it for 40 years,” his daughter Arlene MacLennan said. “This is overwhelming for him. He’s never had people thank him for his service before.”
But one by one people walked up to him and did just that, thanking him and more than a dozen other Pearl Harbor survivors at a solemn, chilly ceremony marking Pearl Harbor Day and honoring the more than 2,400 lives lost in the surprise attack that drew the United States into World War II.
“It was a tragic day for countless individuals as well as a profound blow to our country, but it was also a turning point,” said Navy Adm. Michelle Howard, the vice chief of naval operations and one of several speakers at the event. “It only takes looking around at this gathering of veterans to understand that Pearl Harbor was infinitely more about resilience and American toughness.”
It took a bit of that toughness for the survivors and other WWII veterans to sit outside in the cold breeze, bundled up in their wheelchairs with scarves and blankets as they saluted during taps. Every day, the nation loses approximately 555 WWII veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
MacLennan was below deck on the USS Tennessee when the battleship was struck. He was 19, a gunner’s mate. His children don’t know how much longer he’ll be able to attend remembrance events, which is why they arranged for him to make the journey from Sanford, Virginia.
“He doesn’t go out much, so this is very emotional for him,” his daughter said.
Asked how it felt to be at the service, MacLennan said: “Right now, it feels cold. But I’m glad to be here. After all, I’m 92 years old.”
The attention was perplexing, though.
“In a way I feel honored,” he said, “but in another way it gives you nightmares.”
The attack was horrific. It came in two waves, starting shortly before 8 a.m. The United States was hit by battleships, destroyers and dozens of submarines, torpedo planes and bombers.
For America, the war was on.
“Those we honor today fought against great odds,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Claude Kicklighter, another speaker at the ceremony. “But they not only won that war and saved this nation, but with our allies, they literally saved the world.”
Twelve of the Pearl Harbor survivors in attendance Sunday arrived via a commemorative honor flight from Texas. The youngest was 91. The oldest was 95. One of them was James Leavelle, who became a Dallas homicide detective. He was handcuffed to John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, when Jack Ruby shot him.
Leavelle visited Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery before the ceremony. Like MacLennan, he was a bit bewildered by the afternoon’s events.
“It was certainly different than anything I’ve seen before, and I’ve enjoyed it and that’s about all I can say,” he said, wearing a cowboy hat. “It’s a nice adventure.”
After the speeches and a musical tribute by the Navy Band, the survivors laid wreaths at the Freedom Wall. Several were escorted by members of Boy Scout Troop 1893 from Richmond.
“There is no better way to teach citizenship than from the models of citizenship who are here today,” said Steve Feher, who was helping lead the Scouts. “We are honored.”
MacLennan gently patted his wreath. He listened to a second playing of taps and shook many hands.
“Thank you for your service,” someone said.
“It’s an honor,” another said.
And then MacLennan announced that he was ready to go home.