BANGOR, Maine — Seventy years ago to the day, Robert Coles was a U.S. Navy seaman two weeks shy of his 18th birthday.
In the span of a few minutes, he went from admiring a bright, clear sky in Honolulu — and thanking his lucky stars for being stationed in Pearl Harbor — to watching in shock as Japanese naval planes shredded much of America’s Pacific Fleet.
“We were tied up at the pier and I was on the USS Bagley,” recalled Coles, one of the featured speakers at Wednesday’s ceremony in Bangor commemorating the anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. “I was coming back from the mess hall and chewing on a piece of toast. … I noticed over Ford Island a group of planes with big red circles on them. I thought it was maneuvers for a moment, but as I stood there watching them and saw the bombs or stuff falling out of them, I quickly realized this was not an exercise, it’s not a drill. This is war.”
The former chief petty officer was part of history, a history the soon-to-be 88-year-old Machias resident was happy to share with attendees of Bangor’s 28th annual Pearl Harbor Day Ceremony on the Kenduskeag Plaza footbridge.
When it came to his public comments Wednesday, Coles was succinct.
“Please be united and get together,” he told the crowd of approximately 50 people braving the chilly temperature and steady rain. “We are not blue states. We are not red states. We are the United States, and God bless the United States of America.”
When it came to his remembrances of that fateful day on a major military base in Hawaii, Coles had much more to say.
“I was breathing heavy, but I wasn’t scared, because it was happening around me. … It wasn’t happening to me,” said Coles, who broke the lock on a storage box to get a .50-caliber machine gun and fired off several rounds at the Japanese planes strafing and bombing the naval base.
Coles served five years in the Navy and saw action in 17 World War II battles, including the Battle of Coral Sea, when his destroyer had to fire two torpedoes to sink the stricken aircraft carrier USS Lexington after all hands had been rescued.
“I’m glad to be here,” said Coles. “I’m one of the luckiest men in the world. … I was born December 21, 1923, in the United States of America. That’s where my luck started.”
Several people and groups took part in the ceremony, including the Bangor High School band; the Bangor High Junior ROTC, which fired a 21-gun salute; and speakers representing U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.
Many veterans also braved the cold, clammy conditions.
“I was in Germany just after the war was over, from 1945 to 1948, and I’m proud to be able to be here,” said Al Worster of Carmel. “Events like this, and a couple of the parades are the only times I get a chance to see some of these fellas.”
The Bangor remembrance ceremony was started by World War II Army veteran Paul Colburn, who retired from military service as a staff sergeant in 1946.
“I was just coming out from church, the Universalist Church on Park Street and there was a Bangor Commercial kid yelling, ‘Extra! Extra!’ and that’s how I found out we’d been attacked,” he said. “I enlisted shortly after.”
Colburn served in the Army from 1941 to 1946 and saw action at historic battles such as the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Before the Pearl Harbor remembrances were held in Bangor, “we used to all go down to Portland in three or four carfuls of veterans,” Colburn said. “One year it was a really bad storm with cars all off the road, so I said next year we’d be in Bangor. I said we needed a chairman and a bunch of guys talked about it and came back to tell me we had one. It was me.”
Retired Adj. Gen. John “Bill” Libby, whose father is a World War II veteran, also spoke at Wednesday’s ceremony. He talked about the defining moments that occur in each generation — such as Pearl Harbor, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Freedom is, in fact, not free, and as years go by, we’re losing our veterans and thus losing touch with our history, so it’s important not to let events like this one fade away,” Libby said.
Coles has no intention of letting that happen. In fact, the sharp-witted veteran already plans to be back in Bangor for the 29th ceremony.
“Next year I want to do it again,” he said. “Good Lord willing, I’ll be there.”