As a 17-year-old sailor on the destroyer USS Bagley, Robert Coles of Machias, Maine, fired a .50-caliber machine gun at attacking Japanese warplanes during the infamous Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Now 92, speaking by phone from Oahu, Coles told the Herald’s Brian Dowling he is overwhelmed by the support he has seen on his first return to Hawaii since the war — a trip financed by a gofundme.com page. On the 75th anniversary of the attack that killed 2,400 Americans, here is his story:
“This is what I can’t get over. I have been — I won’t use the word ‘mobbed’ — I have been surrounded by loving, honest American people, shaking my hand, caressing me, hugging me and wishing me ‘God Bless.’ The display of admiration has been overwhelming.
In October of this year, a young lady from Maine started the ball rolling and she went on a GoFundMe page on the internet and she got me $13,500 in donations. You see how beautiful the United States is? The crap you see on the television: the extreme right and the extreme left. That is not the United States of America, that is the weird ol’ fringe. The USA is still honorable.
It’s the 75th anniversary and they, the numbers of Pearl Harbor survivors, are dwindling. In Maine, there was only three Pearl Harbor survivors, me being one of them and two more, one is in a nursing home and the other is in a hospital. I do not know if they are going to be trucked out here. I have no idea. The word we get, there is only about 150 Pearl Harbor survivors worldwide. They decided, let’s make the 75th super-duper, hot-dog special because they don’t think there will be too many around on the 80th and so forth. They are pulling out all the stops.
I joined the Navy in February ’41 because I knew a war was coming, because the world war started Sept. 1, 1939, and I thought, ‘It’s only going to be a matter of time.’
On Dec. 7, 1941, I had left the mess hall and I happened to look up, and way over above, I see 25 to 30 airplanes over Ford Island with big red circles on them, big red meatballs. I didn’t know who they were … I stood there for a second and said this could be maneuvers.
In my small brain, I said, ‘No, this can’t be maneuvers.’ It’s Sunday morning and it’s a crowded harbor and just at that time I started seeing stuff falling out of the aircraft and the hangar on Ford Island blowing up.
I turned and ran forward on port side to the No. 2 .50-caliber machine gun. I busted the padlock on the .50-caliber ammo. I loaded the gun and I opened fire on the first two planes flying by.
I see this huge black explosion. I didn’t know who it was, but I knew something big had blown up. It was the USS Arizona, taking with it 1,177 men. … All this stuff was happening, I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t scared. I was breathing fast, but I was not afraid. Everything was happening around me and nothing was happening to me. That makes a world of difference.
I don’t have animosity with the Japanese. Today, the war is over … As human beings, let’s love and respect each other. Because as they say, those Japanese did what their country asked of them to do. God Bless the U.S. of A., we stopped their clock. That’s what we did.
I didn’t find out until 2005 how long the attack on Pearl Harbor was. It took 1 hour and 50 minutes, and in that 1 hour 50 minute span, more than 2,000 died. They are the heroes of Pearl Harbor, not me. I’m just one hell of a lucky SOB who survived it.”
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