At age ninety-six, Emery Arsenault of West Peabody is one of the approximately fifty remaining veteran survivors of Pearl Harbor.
Emery has been living with his daughter Anne and her family in West Peabody for the past ten years. He maintains his independence in separate living quarters, receiving three home delivered meals per week and two hours monthly heavy chore services through North Shore Elder Services (NSES).
Coincidently North Shore Elder Services’ care manager Caitlin Bibeau traveled to Hawaii this past October. Caitlin’s interest in military events stemmed from her high school years. “We planned on Hawaii for our honeymoon and the first thing I wanted to book was a tour of Pearl Harbor.”
Caitlin was in hopes of meeting one of the veterans at the memorial – sometimes one of the surviving veterans is present during tours, but no guarantees. Unfortunately, that meeting did not occur during Caitlin’s visit. Although disappointed, the visit to the Pearl Harbor Memorial was a riveting and emotional experience.
The following month, Caitlin was back at NSES and assigned as care manager to Emery Arsenault. “I didn’t have to go to Hawaii to meet a Pearl Harbor veteran. I just had to go back to work!” She could not believe the coincidence of the timing of things.
The surprise Japanese attack on the US naval base of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, occurred December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” – President Franklin Roosevelt – and launched the United States into World War II.
Some details of that day have faded but Emery shares his memories of the event.
Emery grew up in Dennis Port, MA and enlisted in the services at age eighteen. After a month of basic training at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, Emery was part of a team operating searchlight and radar equipment at Fort Weaver, which was half a mile from Pearl Harbor. He and four others were on a beach radar patrol and finishing their midnight shift.
“It was the end of a shift and we were getting ready to go to church. We were waiting for a truck to transport us to Pearl Harbor where we would take a ferry to church. Well, that never happened. It was just before 8 am when things started happening.”
The timing of the Japanese attack, at the end of Emery’s shift, kept him In Fort Weaver and a half-mile from Pearl Harbor.
Emery recalls that the radar screen indicated an invasion. They relayed that information to headquarters at Fort Shafter but they were assured it was their own American planes.
“Suddenly we heard the planes overhead. There was a squadron of torpedo bombers, right at tree level. We could see it was the Japanese because of the markings on the plane wings. We could see the pilot and the copilot. They were waving at us while shooting at us. They were not interested in us though. They were heading to Pearl Harbor.”
The only defense available to the men were their rifles. They ran to ditches and planted their guns in the sand, shooting at the planes overhead. After that, the men ran to the trees and dug foxholes. They stayed hidden for three days, expecting an invasion, until given the all clear. It is a vivid recollection that Emery shares about the thick black smoke that surrounded them after the attack on Pearl Harbor. “You couldn’t see your hands in front of you.”
In only a couple of hours, this devastating attack by hundreds of Japanese fighter planes destroyed or damaged nearly twenty American naval vessels, including 8 battleships, and over 300 airplanes. More than 2400 American lives were lost, with half that number on the battleship Arizona.
After Pearl Harbor and after further service in Hawaii, Emery was stationed at Fort Casey in Washington State. He left the army in 1945 as a Private First Class. He eventually settled in Lynn where he married and raised three daughters.
Emery returned to Hawaii for various anniversary commemoration ceremonies. He lastly attended the 75th Commemoration of the Pearl Harbor Attack in December of 2016 through the courtesy of the Colorado based non-profit organization, Greatest Generation Foundation (www.tggf.org). This foundation honors the sacrifices of veterans by providing opportunities for combat veterans to return to their battlefields. “These programs back to the battlefields are often emotional, but provide veterans a measure of closure from their war experiences and the chance to share in the gratitude for their service and a venue to educate others throughout communities across the globe.”
Emery was also able to attend the dedication ceremony of the National World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. in 2004.
With so few Pearl Harbor survivors to share their stories, it seems obvious that in order to honor their service, we need to retell their accounts and remember that day that will live in “infamy”. NSES’ Caitlin Bibeau recognizes the privilege of being in the company of one from the Greatest Generation. “I want to hear what they have to say. Now I have the ability to care and to listen.”
There is a young high school man in California who has made it his mission to speak with as many World War II veterans as he can to record their stories. CBS Sunday Morning recently featured this heartwarming story, which you can view on CBS’ website https://www.cbsnews.com/video/honoring-world-war-ii-vets-before-its-too-late/?ftag=CNM-00-10aab6i&linkId=48509826. He cares deeply for those veterans he feels have so much history encased inside and how much is lost when they pass without sharing their stories.
We at North Shore Elder Services are honored to serve those who served to keep our country safe. Our mission is to help our elders, like Emery, remain as independent as they wish. Programs like Meals on Wheels can be what allows someone to age safely in their own home. This program in particular, depends on the generosity of those in the community to sustain it. If you would like to find out more about NSES Meals on Wheels program and how to donate go to https://nselder.org/donate-2/ If you are interested in becoming a driver for the Meals program, check out our website here; https://nselder.org/get-involved/employment-opportunities/