BANGOR, Maine — City Engineer Jim Ring fielded a phone call more than a year ago from a senior citizen in Bangor. He receives dozens of phone calls every day, but this one piqued his interest.
The woman on the other end wanted to know why the city didn’t have some sort of recognition for Willard Carleton Orr. Ring replied that he didn’t know who Willard Carleton Orr was.
So the woman, Eleanor Grondin, told him the story.
Orr was a 1939 graduate of Bangor High School and a classmate of Grondin’s. He was an honor student, but like many young men during that time, he passed on college for a military path and as a 19-year-old enlisted in the Army Air Corps, which became the Army Air Forces. Two years into his career, Orr and thousands of others were sent overseas to a place many had never heard of — Pearl Harbor.
On Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese bombs carpeted the island of Oahu, Hawaii, Orr was working as a mess cook at Hickam Field. He didn’t even have a weapon in his hand when he died, not that it would have mattered. Orr was one of more than 2,300 American casualties during the attacks on Pearl Harbor, a “day of infamy” that launched the United States into a generation-defining war that still resonates today.
But to Grondin, who is now deceased, Orr was the only Bangor resident and perhaps the only Maine resident who died at Pearl Harbor. So why didn’t the city have any recognition?
Ring, whose father served in World War II, thought the woman had a good point and began researching the story further.
“I didn’t realize a lot of what happened [over there],” the city engineer said Monday. “I learned a lot.”
Ring confirmed the story, which is listed in the World War II Book of Honor at the Bangor Public Library, and began the process of creating a memorial.
About a year later, just before the 68th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the City Council approved a memorial plaque for the pedestrian bridge over Kenduskeag Stream, the site of the city’s annual remembrance.
The plaque — or a temporary version of it, anyway — was unveiled during this year’s ceremony.
“While this plaque memorializes him, it’s emblematic of many men and women who made sacrifices … in some cases the ultimate sacrifice,” Ring said.
Monday’s ceremony, attended by dozens of veterans and others, featured only a small mention of Willard Carleton Orr. His story is one of thousands from a war that the Rev. Carl Schreiber, who delivered the invocation and benediction Monday, said “literally pitted evil against those who … believed in the value of individual life.”
But Orr’s story is Bangor’s story; the city’s link to the tragedy of Pearl Harbor. And now his plaque will honor that link permanently and prominently going forward; not as a man who died much too young, but as a man who died in order to build his country’s resiliency.
“As our country shouldered the burden of this unspeakable tragedy, it became evident that the spirit of this great land was far from broken as millions of patriots answered our country’s call to duty,” Sen. Olympia Snowe said in a statement Monday. “To them, we owe a limitless debt of gratitude that we can never fully repay, and we will now and forever revere their memory.”
At the close of Monday’s ceremony, a single wreath was dropped from the walkway into the waters of Kenduskeag Stream. It floated toward the Penobscot River, eventually out of sight. A naval hymn played. Followed by a gun salute. Followed by taps.