Amid the clamor of the House chamber at the State House yesterday, six elderly men sat quietly at the front of the room, seemingly unfazed by the attention they were receiving.
These six men had faced far worse.
All six were stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked - killing 2,402 Americans, crippling the U.S. Navy and catapulting the United States into World War II.
The men were Gilbert J. Hawkins of East Greenwich, Ralph N. Churchwell of Portsmouth, Daniel Hunter of Cumberland, Wilmer Stevens of Wakefield, Bernard Creswick of Warwick and Raymond J. Haerry Sr., a U.S.S. Arizona survivor, of East Greenwich.
Now, 70 years later, most of the men were in the 90s and some were in wheelchairs. But all withstood the crush of photographers and well wishers, as well as the speeches. Their moment came when one by one, they were handed a microphone and invited to tell about their experiences that day.
Churchwell perhaps summed it up best by noting that he was just glad to be there at the ceremony. Stevens recounted the dreadful feeling in the pit of his stomach during the attack. Hawkins spoke about how he spent the war wanting to get to Japan. He eventually did, but when he returned to Japan in later years, he said he was struck by the friendliness of the people and how it had just been the then-Japanese government that was bad.
Finally, the microphone was given to Haerry, who passed it to his son, Raymond Haerry Jr. He spoke poignantly of how his father was thrown from the Arizona after it was hit and had to swim ashore through water filled with flames. Haerry Sr. stood straight and silent as his son spoke.
Each of the men was awarded a medal and given a state flag. Haerry received the state's highest honor, the Rhode Island cross.
Rep. Raymond E. Gallison Jr., D-69, chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, hosted the ceremony, which was held jointly by the Permanent Advisory Council to the House Veterans’ Committee, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the Rhode Island World War II Commission and the Rhode Island Veterans Council.