On December 7, 2011, despite the rain, they came—veterans and their families, decorated military personnel, dignitaries, elected officials, directors, executives, reserve unit members, Coast Guard members, and young adults serving in the Civil Air Patrol and the Army JROTC—to serve, to speak, to sing, and to stand in deference before six men who, in service of their country, lived through one of the most horrific attacks in American military history.
This year’s “Dropping of the Roses” ceremony marked the 70th anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor; and the American Airpower Museum and Republic Airport in Farmingdale, once again, hosted the solemn and commemorative observance in honor of our veteran heroes and those who perished on December 7, 1941.
“I was one of the first to spot the planes that day”, said Seymour Blutt, 93, one of the oldest of the survivors, who was serving in the Army Air Corps on December 7th. “I was on KP that day near a window with a mop in my hand”, Blutt recalled. “I spotted the Japanese planes coming down and bombing, and I yelled, ‘take cover.’” Minutes later, as Blutt headed for the parade ground, the building blew up.
“It was a large structure so it was an easy target; it was one of the first things to go”, Blutt’s daughter, Lisa, said. She recalled that as her father ran for his life down a grassy field, bombs were exploding on either side of him. “I use the services of the VA hospital for my hearing aids, Blutt said. “My eardrums were blown out from the bombs falling so close to me that day.”
“They just caught us when we weren’t expecting anything. It was a complete surprise”, said Richard Abeles, 90, who served in the Navy as a radio operator on the USS Dale on December 7th.. “We should always be prepared for anything. I think the Boy Scout motto, ‘be prepared’ is the right thing’”, he remarked.
Recalling the events of December 7th, Bernard Berner, 91, who served in the Army as a technical sergeant in charge of six companies, said “I was there before and after—on Saturday before the attack, Pearl Harbor was full of ships. On Sunday, there were no ships afloat.”
Each of the Pearl Harbor survivors in attendance at the ceremony, who, 70 years ago, lived through a battle killing 2,335 servicemen and 68 civilians in less than two hours, was fittingly honored by a poignant and impressive program of events prepared as a tribute to them.
A proclamation from Suffolk County Executive, Steve Levy, was presented to Long Island Air Force Association President, Fred Di Fabio, on behalf of the more than 1.5 million residents and more than 100,000 veterans of Suffolk County, acknowledging and honoring the Pearl Harbor veterans, and all veterans, who have served our nation with dedication and honor.
In a letter directed to the Long Island AFA, the Pearl Harbor survivors, and all veterans, Dean G. Skelos, Majority Leader of the State Senate in Albany, reminded those in attendance that the lessons of our nation’s history were written with the blood and tears of those who fought valiantly in the past to protect our freedom. Every American owes a debt of gratitude to them, he said. He lauded all those presently serving in the armed forces, and thanked the organizers and participants of the event who work to ensure that we will never forget the sacrifices made.
In his deeply moving talk, Frederick Seitz, an American Air Power Museum volunteer with a son in active duty in the United States Air Force, revealed the personal side of the pain and struggles that military families face every day.
Seitz is a blue-star parent. On his lapel he wears a pin with a blue star, a white background, and a red border as a proud reminder of his son’s service. But, Seitz explained, it is also a reminder of the sacrifices of family members—it’s birthdays and special occasions that are missed, it’s holding a picture of a loved one to make a family portrait complete, and it’s fear—nameless, faceless fear that cannot be readily identified but is “powerful, stressful, numbing, relentless. It’s not being able to watch the news one second and not being able to tear yourself away the next”, Seitz said.
No matter how tough it is being a blue-star parent, there are families out there displaying a star of a different color, Seitz continued. When you see the star of gold, you will know that that their loved one will never be coming home. They have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Seitz urged the audience to keep our soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and coastguardsmen in their thoughts and prayers, reminding them that the sacrifices they make and the jobs they do daily ensure the freedoms we enjoy. The American war hero “does not fight because he hates what’s in front of him, Seitz movingly concluded, “but because he loves what’s behind him”.
Joining the ceremony for the first time, Dr. Libby O’Connell, chief historian for the History Channel, presented a revealing look at a little-known side of the history of Long Island during World War II.
In January 1942, O’Connell explained, residents began seeing evidence of Hitler’s assault on the United States. Just off the shore of Long Island, German U-Boats were firing on vessels travelling into the shipping lanes of New York Harbor; and along with the wreckage washing up on the south shore of Long Island were the scorched bodies of our sailors. Most people don’t know how close we were to an actual military front, O’Connell commented.
But Long Islanders were beginning to prepare, O’Connell continued. In Long Beach concrete was being poured for lookout towers, and in Freeport a bank building was designated as an air raid observation post. Mitchel Field became a key military center, and the Robert Moses Parkway became an important commuter artery for defense companies. Racial and religious prejudices, along with many restrictions, were falling apart in the face of total war as defense companies began hiring African Americans, women, and Jews for the first time.
O’Connell concluded by commenting that Pearl Harbor was a huge tactical victory that ended in strategic and searing defeat and reminded the audience of their responsibility to keep the story alive by continuing to faithfully recount it along with the changes that took place on Long Island during World War II.
Of course, it was the Pearl Harbor survivors, seated in front of the podium, who stole the show when Colonel Bill Stratemeier of the Air National Guard introduced them. Tom Ronayne, Director of Suffolk County Veterans Services; Colonel Thomas Owens, Commander of the Westhampton Beach 106th Air National Guard Rescue Wing; and Long Island AFA President, Fred Di Fabio, assisted in presenting each of them with a proclamation on behalf of Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, remembering and thanking them for their service.
Standing before the unrelenting and enthusiastic applause of the audience were: Richard Abeles, 90, of Brentwood; Gerard Barbosa, 88, of East Meadow; Bernard Berner, 91, of South Setauket; Seymour Blutt, 93; of Brooklyn; and Michael Montelione, 92, of Farmingdale. William Halleran, 93, of Merrick, a machine-gunner on the USS Phoenix, who was scheduled to be in attendance, was unexpectedly hospitalized the morning of the event; and his proclamation was presented to his grandson.
The ceremony continued with the formal presentation of 70 American Beauty Roses commemorating each year since Pearl Harbor and a single white rose in honor of those who perished on 9-11 by members of the Naval Reserve. The blessing of the roses by Chaplain Captain Ronald Klose of the Naval Reserve Support Center with water from the sacred surrounds of the USS Arizona was followed by a moment of silence in honor of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their country.
The ringing of the bell by Captain Klose in honor of Pearl Harbor veteran, Andrew Terranova, who died this past year, was followed by the formal playing of taps.
As the hangar doors opened, the ceremony moved outdoors to the airport runway where the roses were presented to GEICO Skytyper pilots seated in a vintage World War II plane. Amid the crowd, each of the survivors proudly stood, intently watching as the propeller began to whirl and the plane turned to taxi down the runway in fulfillment of its solemn mission to drop the memorial roses over the Statue of Liberty.