World War II veteran and Native Hawaiian Herb Weatherwax has been serving as the unofficial ambassador of aloha at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center near the USS Arizona Memorial on Oahu for 17 years.
At 97 years young, he is still going strong.
“This is the beginning of my journey until I’m 100 years old,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Three days a week “Uncle Herb” tools into his spot in front of the bookstore and museum on his motorized scooter – his legs gave out on him about 12 years ago, a result of frostbite and other challenges he faced while stationed in Germany during World War II. His family drives him to and from their home in Kailua.
From the moment he arrives and sits alongside a table that displays his delightful autobiography, “Counting my Blessings,” people of all ages flock to him. Everyone wants their photo taken with this sweet man who radiates pure joy.
Uncle Herb smiles, shakes hands and poses for pictures with one and all. If anyone asks, he will tell them stories of his experiences when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, plunging the United States into World War II.
“I tell people about the explosions that took place, how loud they were, and about that capsized ship, the USS Oklahoma, that trapped more than 400 of our men, and about the USS Arizona where 1,177 more men lost their lives,” he says.
The morning Pearl Harbor was attacked, Herb was on leave from Schofield Barracks where he was stationed, 17 miles outside Honolulu. As he drove past Pearl Harbor, he saw the devastation.
“I looked out and saw the Oklahoma had just keeled over and her hull was facing up. The Arizona was engulfed in smoke. The whole sky was filled with smoke and it was hard to see the planes.”
When he and a friend drove to Wheeler Army Field that had also been bombed, they saw United States military planes ablaze and airplane hangars on fire.
“I don’t know if I was scared. We were trained and fear was not supposed to be part of our behavior,” he says softly, silently recalling the images in his mind.
Shortly thereafter, Uncle Herb was shipped to Europe where he served in France, Belgium and Germany in the infantry.
“If people don’t believe in a higher power, you better believe it, because when you’re under fire . . .” his voice trails off. “The first thing I did was duck. Then I said a prayer.”
“In my heart, I feel thankful that I didn’t have to kill anybody in the war,” he says. “War is a terrible thing. There is nothing good about it. There’s no winner. Everybody loses in a war.”
A good attitude
Herb Weatherwax is much more than a U.S. war veteran. He is a shining example of how we have the power to create our own reality in spite of any hardships we may have experienced in our lives.
But Herb lived through years of “hard knocks,” as he calls them, before he learned how to focus on getting the life he wanted.
His father was killed in an industrial accident at work when Herb was only three months old.
At age seven, Herb watched as a playmate was killed by a drunken driver. Four years after his mother remarried, Herb’s stepfather died. The remaining family of four moved into a one-room house in Hilo where his mother’s new husband and his children soon joined them.
One or two years later, Herb’s brother, Eddie, was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease (then called leprosy), placed into isolation in Hilo, then Honolulu, and later sent to live at Kalaupapa on Molokai with other Hansen’s disease sufferers.
As he grew older, Herb was homeless for a time, living on the streets of Honolulu punctuated by various stints in jail. And he was an alcoholic.
After he returned home from war, Herb set about rebuilding his life, becoming an electrical contractor and establishing his own company. Sixty-eight years later, his business, Weatherwax Electric, is still going strong and is now operated by his son.
“I ran the business pretty well,” he says modestly, explaining the company’s longevity. “I used the same personality that I have now with all my care, so naturally I had a good following.”
In 1955 he attended his first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. When he mentions his 59 years of sobriety today, you feel his gratitude. “Thankfully my children never saw me take a drink,” he says.
Herb’s secret to his happy life? “I’ve always had a good attitude,” he says. “I never complained because things seemed bad. I took things as they came along in life.”
Makes me so happy
Back at the Pearl Harbor visitors center, Uncle Herb continues to inspire others. His favorites are the children. “They take a picture of me and I give them a paper with a short version of my story on it that they take back to school,” he says. “It makes them feel important.”
A young sailor named De’Marshay Logan, who is stationed at Pearl Harbor on the Aegis destroyer USS Chung-Hoon, greets Herb with reverence and proudly poses for a photo with the older man.
“Meeting Mr. Weatherwax has been an eye-opener,” the younger man says. “It made me wake up and wear my uniform with a lot more pride knowing that I’m following in the shadow of the legacy this gentleman has left.”
“I meet people from all over the world here,” Uncle Herb says. “This is what makes me so happy.”
Uncle Herb Weatherwax’s autobiography, “Counting my Blessings” is available at the Pearl Harbor visitors center bookstore and museum or online at http://www.pacifichistoricparksbookstore.org.
Pamela Varma Brown
is the publisher of “Kauai Stories,” and the forthcoming “Kauai Stories 2” and “Hawaii Stories.”