At 90, Donald Tabbut forgets names, and faces slip away from him. But the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, remains sharp. That was the day explosions jarred him from a deep sleep, and as he threw open the door of his barracks, a plane emblazoned with a red rising sun swooped low across the sky and let fly a bomb.
“At my age, I start losing my memory . . . and it’s strange, and it’s ill-feeling,” said Tabbut, a slight man bundled against a biting wind on the deck of the USS Cassin Young in the Charlestown Navy Yard, where about 200 people gathered Saturday to mark the 72d anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “But I look back 70-odd years ago, and I can think, I can still remember some of the things that happened that day.”
Tabbut was the sole Pearl Harbor survivor at the ceremony, held to honor the 2,403 Americans killed when the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed the US naval base at Pearl Harbor — an attack that launched the United States into World War II. But the audience was packed with veterans of other wars, as well as wives and children of Pearl Harbor survivors. Officials implored attendees to never forget a “day which will live in infamy.”
Marian Curtis, 89, held two red carnations to her chest and looked out toward the water. Her husband, William Frank Curtis, was stationed aboard the USS Nevada when the attack occurred. He was blown backward down a ladder and suffered shrapnel wounds, but he survived. His best friend was not so lucky. He was killed when his head was smashed against the ship’s bulkhead.
She pulled a faded photo of the Nevada from the folds of her long red coat, showing black smoke rising in a widening plume, a bomber overhead. She pointed: Her husband was here, she said, on the starboard side. He died 15 years ago, and they never had the money to return to Pearl Harbor. But she comes to the ceremony every year.
‘But I look back 70-odd years ago, and I can think, I can still remember some of the things that happened that day.’Donald Tabbut, Pearl Harbor survivor
“My husband was a gem, a strong man, a fine man,” said Curtis, whose speech is still dotted with Navy jargon. “He loved his ship.”
Marilyn Walsh arrived at the ceremony with her two sisters, brother, and brother-in-law, carrying a poster decorated with pictures of their father, who was aboard the USS Vestal when the bombs hit. In the center was a map of the base, which she asked Tabbut to sign.
“It’s a part of our lives,” said Walsh. “As children, we heard the terrible things that happened that day. We feel a part of it. We feel a part of history. A lot of our family was shaped by that day.”
Her father leaped from the Vestal into the water, which burned around him with gushing oil, and swam to shore. When he came home, she said, he had post-traumatic stress disorder that he never fully dealt with. He died young, said Walsh, and she only came to understand his struggle as she grew older, joined the military herself.
“That generation, the greatest generation, they just hold a lot of things in. They don’t like to complain,” said Walsh. “That day did a number on him. I know he’d still be alive, going strong, if that day didn’t happen.”
Even for those who had no personal connection to the bombing, it was important to observe the anniversary.
“When they bombed us, the whole world changed,” said David Agee, who sat leaning on his cane while the brass band warmed up behind him. He was just 6 when it happened, he said, and too young to understand what it meant; he had never come to the anniversary ceremony before. But, he said, at 78, he figured it was time.
The ceremony aboard the Cassin Young, named for a Navy commander awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during Pearl Harbor, began 29 years ago. Back then, officials said, about 30 survivors attended. Last year, there were three. Now, it is just Tabbut.
“That is a really tough thing to take,” said Tabbut. “When he said that I was all alone. That’s putting it down pretty good. Makes me wonder how many more years I have to live. So, what are you gonna do?”
The remembrance culminated with a wreath-laying. Tabbut made his way to the railing and helped to toss the ring of flowers over into the water. Joined by a bouquet of pink roses and Curtis’s carnations, it floated toward the open ocean.