Preserving links to Pearl Harbor

Robin Hardee has a small shrine to her parents on the mantel of her West Ashley home. Hardee's father and mother served in the Navy during World War II, and her father was a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Robin Hardee's father was at Pearl Harbor on the morning of the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack. But she never once heard him talk about it.

Only after he died decades later did she get any inkling of the trauma he'd been exposed to. The words came in a long-forgotten diary found inside a dusty attic trunk.

At the time of the attack, Joseph Hardee was a 25-year-old boat chief on the cruiser Honolulu. When the first bombs fell around 7:55 a.m., he was eating breakfast below deck. The noise sent him scurrying to his battle station, a control panel that guided some of the ship's guns.

For some 90 minutes, Hardee was sealed up inside without a glimpse of the fighting outside. Only when the guns went silent did he venture out into the open.

'He saw the Japanese planes leaving,' Robin Hardee said last week, quoting from her father's hand-written account. 'And a sea of oil, bodies and blood.'

Twelve hours later, the news got even worse. Hardee discovered his younger brother and shipmate, Aubrey, had been killed by a bomb blast in the forward section of the wounded Honolulu.

Nearly seven decades later, Robin Hardee, of West Ashley, is working to keep alive the stories of the attack. For the past year, she has pushed to rekindle a more active S.C. Chapter of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors. In order to keep going, she needs to find at least seven state residents willing to join with her before she can get rechartered by the national headquarters.

Finding those survivor relatives has proved difficult. By her count, as many as five South Carolina residents who were at Pearl Harbor died in the past year. And getting their family members interested or even aware that a relatives' group is available hasn't been easy.

Robin Hardee remembers her father as kind and giving. A career Navy man, he'd lend a community hand when it was needed, she said. But he never would go back to his time at Pearl. The closest he got, she said, was when her mother saw him leave a tear behind during a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial during a visit to Hawaii during the attack's 50th anniversary.

Based on the start of the wartime clock, Pearl Harbor veterans are America's oldest World War II generation service members, but how many are left nationally is unclear, as all World War II vets are dying at a rate of 1,000 a day. Estimates are that as many as 40 survivors live in South Carolina.

The Charleston area lost a survivor a few weeks ago when Robert 'Pop' Coley of Summerville died at age 87. Coley was assigned to the submarine tender Pelias when he saw hundreds of planes swarm over the mountains, and was eyewitness to the battleship Arizona blowing up.

He was buried in his native Alabama.

Over the years, Robin Hardee became a student of Pearl Harbor, buying books at yard sales and reading eyewitness accounts of what happened, looking at parallels to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Yet for all her research, she still has a hard time grasping the scope of the surprise air attack that killed more than 2,400 U.S. servicemen and civilians.

'You can't put yourself in their place, but you try to,' she said, adding, 'How can you go through something like that and come out sane?'

Seconds later, she answered her own question. 'They did it because they were fighting for their country.'

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.