BANGOR – Louis Mathieson, 79, of Owls Head was aboard the USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He and his brother Harry are among the few who made it off the doomed warship, which was anchored in the Hawaiian harbor when the 7:55 a.m. attack began.
John Winkin, 81, of Bangor was on watch duty aboard a Navy destroyer just outside Pearl Harbor and recalls watching “all hell breaking loose from the air” as Japanese bombers lowered over the American fleet.
The men are among a dwindling number of Pearl Harbor survivors as the country marks the 59th anniversary today of the infamous battle that brought this country into World War II.
Veterans and others will mark the event in ceremonies throughout the state. In Bangor, people will gather at noon at the Kenduskeag Stream Plaza near downtown to throw a wreath into the water in memory of the 2,335 servicemen killed and 96 warships sunk in the attack. City Mayor John Rohman is scheduled to attend the ceremony, and the Bangor High School band and ROTC unit will provide music and ceremonial flourishes for a brief yet meaningful ceremony, according to its organizers.
A free fish chowder luncheon will follow the ceremony at the VFW Post 1761 building on outer Hammond Street in Bangor.
Mathieson has made it a point to attend most of Bangor’s Pearl Harbor Day observances. Throwing a wreath into the water may seem like a small gesture, but it is done out of respect for those lost in an attack that he now believes could have been avoided.
On that fateful morning, Mathieson had just been relieved of watch duty and was heading for the showers when the USS Oklahoma was hit by torpedo fire. Each torpedo hit rocked the vessel, he recalled recently. Within nine minutes, after being hit by nine torpedoes, the warship overturned and sank. Mathieson said he escaped by following a ventilation duct to an open hatch. He remains haunted by a commander’s order that he close another hatch behind him lest the vessel sink more rapidly. He is aware the action most likely entombed several men below in a watery grave.
Mathieson remembers swimming in the oily waters of Pearl Harbor and being splashed in the face by bullets from a Japanese fighter plane. He prayed to God and didn’t try to hide from the attackers, he recalled. Mathieson was not injured and lived to greet his brother, who also survived, on shore.
Winkin, former University of Maine baseball coach, was a 22-year-old Navy ensign on watch duty aboard a destroyer anchored just outside Pearl Harbor. By a stroke of luck, his vessel did not make it into Pearl Harbor the night of Dec. 6 as scheduled because of a violent ocean storm. “We were supposed to dock next to the USS Arizona,” Winkin recalled. The Arizona was sunk in the attack.
“If we were on time, we wouldn’t be around,” Winkin said.
Now affiliated with Husson College, Winkin said he was “fortunate” to see a piece of history unfold. It became clear the Japanese were focusing their attack on American battleships and since he wasn’t aboard one of those vessels his life wasn’t threatened. He felt more intense danger at other times in his 56 months of wartime duty, Winkin said, especially from kamikaze planes that would hurtle into battleships at sea.
Mathieson has written a book titled “One Sunday Morning” that, like other books written on Pearl Harbor, theorizes high-ranking U.S. officials knew about plans for the Pearl Harbor attack days before it happened. The theory is that President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to bring the United States into the war but the public did not support the moves until Americans lost their lives at Pearl Harbor.
Dec. 7, 1941, was “a day that completely changed my life,” Mathieson said.