Friday, February 13, 2015

From Street Gang to WWII Veteran

by Bill Doughty

In "Counting My Blessings: The Autobiography of a Native Hawaiian Pearl Harbor Survivor," "Uncle Herb" Weatherwax tells his story of humble beginnings – from homeless street gang to life in the military during World War II, then success as a business owner.

As to his humble beginnings as a child raised on the outskirts of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii:
"There was no stove in our house. Instead, we had a couple of rocks placed outside with metal bars across them. We would build a fire underneath and place the food across the bars. We didn't have running water, either. In those days, one of the staple foods was salted salmon from Alaska, which was shipped in large barrels. We used the barrels to collect water ... Our outhouse was built over underground lava tubes. All you had to do was locate one of those tubes, knock a hole in it, and put the outhouse over it! There would be spider webs in there and it wasn't too pleasant."
Hilo, Hawaii in 1928.
Weatherwax picked up the nickname "Spider" when he subsequently ran the streets with the Hotel Street Gang and later the Bethel Street Gang as a young man who became addicted to alcohol and spent "numerous nights in jail."

His first steady job was with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, building roads around Mauna Kea, home today of the world's largest astronomical observatory.

He also worked for Hawaiian Electric as an apprentice electrician for 30 cents an hour. It was a trade that would help him in the Army and later as a veteran.

Weatherwax was drafted into the Army in June 1941 and was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Wahiawa. He was on a weekend pass in Honolulu on December 7, 1941 and heard the thunderous attack in Pearl Harbor. He was recalled to his duty station during the attack and ordered to prepare an invasion of the islands.
"As the bus was passing above Pearl Harbor I saw the whole thing. The attack was still going on and there was confusion everywhere. The USS Arizona was enveloped in flames; the USS Oklahoma was on its side. Those who managed to escape from being trapped inside those ships were up on the hull, but the ocean was on fire from the spilled oil and fuel. Those men couldn't even go into the water. There was smoke all over and a lot of commotion."
The invasion never came, but war was declared the next day. President Roosevelt called it an "unprovoked and dastardly attack" and "a day of infamy."
U.S. Army troops move through the "dragon's teeth" of the Siegfried Line.

"Counting My Blessings" tracks Weatherwax's journey during the war from the Pacific to the Atlantic, landing in Europe and facing Germany's Siegfried Line where "the sound of strafing was like 1,000 stampeding horses." He said his 272nd Regiment advanced into Germany and freed dying prisoners in labor camps. A highlight was meeting up with then-Allied forces from Russia who, instead of the Americans, marched into Berlin.

In August 1945 Weatherwax was preparing to redeploy to the Pacific Theater when word came that Japan had surrendered. In the years that followed he reflected on the death and destruction he witnessed, he said, and "the lasting effects of combat experience."

After the war, the Army veteran worked at Kwajalein and Subic Bay in the Philippines in harbor dredging and runway construction jobs before starting businesses back in Hawaii and running unsuccessfully for political office. His association with Alcoholics Anonymous helped him, he said.

As a member of the 69th Infantry Division veterans, Herb along with his wife, Lehua, traveled back to Europe to see former battlefields in 1995. "The highlight of the whole trip was meeting up again with the Russian veterans at the Elbe River on the 50th anniversary of the original meeting."

("Uncle Herb" and Lehua played cupid with a Russian immigrant in Hawaii, which is a nice aside in the book.)

Weatherwax lost his brother Eddie at a relatively early age to the scourge of Hansen's Disease, leprosy. The experience had a profound effect on Herb and his outlook on life.
"Towards the end, when I visited him in Kalaupapa, he was hospitalized and had his own room. They had operated on him to remove his eyeballs ... When I visited him, we'd talk and despite his unfortunate circumstances he had a good sense of humor and philosophy. I gained a lot from him by observing what he had to go through. It made me appreciate what I had. Despite his affliction, he never seemed despondent or depressed. He gave me the impression that he was living each day as best he could. I began to count my blessings. I knew that It could just as easily have been me. Why he got it and not me, no one will ever know. Realizing that fact gave me the fortitude to carry on and realize how fortunate I was in comparison to other people. I realized that I should be more grateful for what I had."
"Uncle Herb" has been a familiar, perpetually smiling presence at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center," where he has volunteered and where his autobiography, published by Pacific Historic Parks, is available for purchase.

"It is up to Survivors to perpetuate the history until we are gone," he said. "I am always learning from others and thought that someone might pick up one or two little things from what I have gone through."

Special thanks to retired Master Chief Jim Taylor, Pearl Harbor Survivor Liaison, who made me aware of Uncle Herb's book!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story