MACHIAS, Maine — What are the odds that two people who experienced the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would wind up in the same small community? And have a connection by marriage, to boot?
Robert Coles and Alma Vane were both in Honolulu that fateful day, Dec. 7, 1941, although their circumstances and experiences were quite different.
Coles was a 17-year-old sailor who witnessed and was caught up in the fury and devastation unleashed by the Japanese sneak attack, which catapulted the U.S. into World War II. Vane was a little girl whose father was stationed at a nearby Army base, where her family lived.
In interviews Thursday, both recalled their experiences and how they came to make their home in the Washington County seat.
Coles, who will turn 90 on Dec. 21, has been married three times but now lives alone. He is fit, still drives his own car, and he spoke enthusiastically, energetically and thoughtfully as he recalled his service.
Coles enlisted in the Navy when he turned 17 in 1940 and was still a senior in high school in the Bronx, New York. He worked long hours as a teenager and was partly motivated to join the military in order to escape that drudgery.
“You knew damn well, we’re going to be in it pretty soon,” recalled Coles, speaking to the Bangor Daily News in his living room on Thursday.
He was called up in February 1941 and was sent to Newport, R.I., for boot camp after which he completed training to become a radioman at a school in San Diego, Calif.
Coles arrived at Pearl Harbor in October. He was given a choice of serving on one of three ships. He chose the USS Bagley, a destroyer. One of the other two choices was the battleship USS Arizona, which was a target in the Japanese attack and sank in less than 10 minutes after being heavily damaged.
“One thousand, one hundred and seventy-seven men died aboard the USS Arizona,” recalled Coles. “It could have been one thousand, one hundred and seventy-eight.”
Coles initially was tested for his skill in Morse code when he reported for duty on the Bagley. Because it had been some months since he completed his radio training, he performed poorly, so he was assigned to duty as a regular seaman on deck. While on watch duty in the crow’s nest some mornings, he also observed when the sailors who operated the .50-caliber machine guns would report to their stations for practice, load their weapons, and fire some rounds.
On the morning of the attack, the Bagley was tied up at the Navy yard pier. Coles emerged from the mess hall, still chewing on a piece of toast, he recalled.
“All of a sudden I noticed a lot of planes … with big red circles on them,” the insignia of Japan.
Coles saw some of the planes bomb the nearby naval air station on Ford Island.
Coles ran forward to one of the machine guns and drew on what he learned watching the other sailors practice. He took a tool, broke the padlock to the ammunition box, and loaded the weapon. Two Japanese torpedo planes approached. Coles took aim and opened fire, hitting both aircraft. He was quickly relieved by the chief gunnery mate and thereafter took up a station in the bow of the ship to act as a spotter for other enemy aircraft.
The battle lasted nearly two hours.
“As far as I’m concerned, it took a lifetime,” said Coles.
He could see damage being inflicted on the naval station and other ships in the harbor.
“I could see these huge explosions,” recalled Coles.
The U.S. declared war on Japan the next day and Coles would go on to participate in 16 more Navy battles in the Pacific Ocean. He was aboard another destroyer, part of a vast armada that was steaming to Japan to invade the island nation, when it was announced over the ship’s public address system in August 1945 that Japan had surrendered — the war was over.
“I started bawling like a baby,” said Coles, who added that he cried and shook for several minutes.
Coles, once married to a cousin of Vane’s, made a career of the Navy, serving 30 years. His last assignment was at the Navy’s communications facility in nearby Cutler, where he retired in 1970. He decided to make his home in Machias.
“Wish I’d been sent up 30 years earlier,” he said. “Wonderful people. Lovely people.”
Vane, 80, was living in Honolulu with her family as an 8-year-old girl when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Her father, Elbridge Shirley Chadwick, was in the Army, stationed at nearby Fort Shafter. He had married a Hawaiian woman, and Vane was one of four children. They lived in the fort’s housing for military families.
The day of the attack, her father had taken her younger brother, 5, for a drive to buy some doughnuts, a Sunday morning tradition. However, he turned around and returned home after noticing sugar cane fields on fire and suspecting something was amiss. He brought her brother home and then left to report for duty.
Army personnel soon began driving throughout the base, instructing civilians to go to the communications center — immediately.
“We had to go as we were and run up this hill,” recalled Vane, who is currently rehabilitating in a nursing home from an injury she suffered in a fall.
While they were running up the hill, a Japanese plane flew nearby and dropped an incendiary bomb. Nobody was hurt, but her older sister picked up their younger brother and carried him the rest of the way to the communications center. Vane hastily followed with her mother and older brother.
“That was a very vivid day,” recalled Vane.
Vane, her siblings, her mother and other military families spent three days and three nights at the communications center.
“We didn’t know if our father was alive or not,” she said.
After returning home, the family was reunited with him a week later.
Although Vane’s father continued his military service, three months later mother and children were evacuated to the U.S., arriving by ship in San Francisco and then traveling a week by train to Machias, where they were greeted by members of her father’s family. There was snow on the ground, which the mother and children had never seen before.
Vane and her family were taken in by members of their father’s extended family.
“They were wonderful to us,” she recalled.
Her father survived the war but did not return to Machias to make a home.
Coles and Vane, later connected by marriage, eventually learned of their mutual Pearl Harbor experiences. They have shared them with students in Washington County, sometimes making joint appearances to talk about the attack on Pearl Harbor from their different points of view.
An earlier version of this story reported that Alma Vane's father was Elbridge Shirley Vane. It is Elbridge Shirley Chadwick.