Pearl Harbor survivor celebrates 98th birthday at Arizona Memorial
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: February 8, 2018
HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Dozens of visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial visitor center sang happy birthday Wednesday to 98-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor Al Rodrigues — one of a dwindling number of eyewitnesses who volunteer at the park.
The National Park Service and nonprofit Pacific Historic Parks honored Rodrigues with the open-air birthday party and a hula dancer. Over the years, Rodrigues has said hello to thousands of visitors and signed as many autographs at the visitor center.
“There are very few places where veterans like this volunteer at sites like Pearl Harbor, because most of our battle sites are overseas,” said Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes the Arizona Memorial.
“So when you think of that, that there are still some of them of that generation that is fading right before us, (but) still give their time and engage with the visitors and sign books and pose for pictures — that’s something very special,” Martinez said.
Visitors “get to touch history, and in turn, it touches them,” he said.
Born in Kapaa, Kauai, on Feb. 7, 1920, Rodrigues, the son of a Portuguese father and part-Hawaiian mother, joined the Navy Reserve and was on active duty at Bishop’s Point on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
He was on watch when he saw the destroyer USS Ward dropping depth charges on an unidentified submarine, according to the park service. Years later the sunken vessel would be confirmed as a Japanese midget submarine trying to enter Pearl Harbor.
At 7:45 a.m., Rodrigues was at breakfast and had just put down his tray when he heard explosions. He and others were issued bolt-action Springfield rifles or .45-caliber pistols.
“We heard yells to shoot the (Japanese pilots) as they had open cockpits,” Rodrigues said in his book, “Diary of a Pearl Harbor Survivor.” “Hell, it was hard enough to shoot the airplane, much less the pilot.”
In 2007, Rodrigues was part of a group of five survivors who regularly volunteered at the visitor center, trading quips with each other and with tourists.
“He’s the old man right here,” Rodrigues, then 87, said on one occasion while cocking his head toward fellow survivor Herb Weatherwax. “How old are you, Dad?”
Weatherwax was 90 at the time. The always-smiling Weatherwax died in late 2016 at the age of 99.
Survivors Everett Hyland, 94, who was on the USS Pennsylvania, and Navy corpsman Sterling Cale, 96, along with Robert Lee, who was 20 at the time of the attack and lived close by, are among those who still talk to visitors.
Rodrigues’ son, Kalani, said his father was “overwhelmed” and “very happy” with the brief birthday party.
“The hula dancer that they brought in … from Kapaa where he was born — he was just flattered by that,” the younger Rodrigues said.