A staffer wheeled Ray Haerry, age 94, into a lounge at West View Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.
He wore rumpled jeans, a beige jacket and a cap bearing the insignia of one of history’s most famous ships — the battleship Arizona. Haerry was a 19-year-old sailor on its massive deck when the Japanese bombed it in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, killing 1,177 — around half of everyone lost that day.
Only 335 aboard survived.
Today, a mere six are still alive.
Ray Haerry, who is in assisted living now in West Warwick, is one.
I was told about Haerry by Tim Gray, a local filmmaker who included him in a new documentary, “Remember Pearl Harbor,” to be aired nationally on PBS this December on the 75th anniversary of the attack. Gray, who has made a career of capturing the stories of World War II vets, said time is growing short to meet legends like Ray Haerry.
So I drove to West View and sat down with him and his son Ray Jr., now 69 and a retired engineer.
Haerry is still clear-eyed with a firm handshake but his memory is fading, so Ray Jr. was there to help tell his dad’s story.
I began by asking if Haerry has gone back to Pearl Harbor to visit the USS Arizona Memorial.
Ray Jr. shook his head no.
“It was too horrible for him to live through again,” the son explained.
For the same reason, said Ray Jr., his dad never brought up the subject of Pearl Harbor himself. But over the years, the son has pressed him for the sake of history and pieced it together.
I asked Haerry if he remembered that day.
He was 19 at the time and part of the deck crew. He’d spent the early morning running a launch taking sailors back and forth to shore. He was aboard when the attack began around 7:55 a.m.
Haerry ran to an anti-aircraft gun. There in the nursing home, he remembered the specific size: “25-caliber, 5-inch,” he said.
But the harbor was considered so safe the gun had no ammunition.
“They were practically helpless,” said Ray Jr.
The great ship was strafed repeatedly by bombs and gunfire.
“I remember him telling me he saw one enemy plane go from stem to stern just strafing,” said Ray Jr.
Then it happened. About nine minutes after the attack began, a 1,760-pound bomb ignited the forward magazine and the Arizona went up in a catastrophic explosion.
“He told me he felt the entire ship rise out of the water,” Ray Jr. said.
Then the blast hit him and Haerry was blown into the harbor.
He started swimming to shore, about 100 feet away. Diesel fuel was burning on the surface and he had to sweep it away as he stroked. He also went by charred bodies and body parts.
Once he got to land, Haerry found a .50-caliber machine gun and began firing at enemy planes from there.
Finally, the attack ended.
But Haerry’s work didn’t.
“He spent the rest of the day in a patrol boat picking up bodies and body parts,” said Ray Jr.
His dad told him of later attempts to cut into the ship to recover bodies, but they weren’t able to get many, and today, more than 900 still lie at rest there, including a number of Ray Haerry’s one-time sailor friends.
Haerry was born in New Jersey but moved to Warwick at age 10 in the early 1930s with his chemical engineer dad. He went to high school at the former East Greenwich Academy and at 17 decided he wanted the adventure of the Navy.
His dad approved his recruitment, and after being stationed a year in California, Haerry was assigned to Pearl Harbor.
He stayed in the military after the war, with his last posting at Newport’s Naval Station as drill instructor at the Officer Candidate School in the early 1960s.
The family settled in Cowesett, near where Haerry’s wife, Evelyn, is from, and Ray Jr. remembers his dad often getting up at 3 a.m. so he could take the Jamestown ferry to Newport to wake up his charges.
Ray Jr. looked at his dad with a smile: “I got a little of that — the early morning ‘rise and shine.'”
Haerry was in the service 26 years and later did carpentry work.
He never sought recognition for his role in the attack, but in 2011, he was invited to a State House ceremony honoring Pearl Harbor veterans. On that December day, Master Chief Petty Officer Raymond J. Haerry was given the state’s highest medal for bravery in action, The Rhode Island Cross.
By then Haerry had started living at West View, after breaking his hip in a 2010 fall.
A few months ago Evelyn joined him there, and they recently marked their 70th wedding anniversary.
“The staff is remarkable,” Ray Jr. told me. “One of the best in Rhode Island.”
But he said it’s still a time of struggle for the family. Despite Medicaid, Social Security and his dad’s pension, elder-care costs have drained their savings. Ray Jr., who is an only child and has Parkinson’s, plans to sell the couple’s Cowesett house, but says the money drain will continue.
“There’s something wrong,” he said, “with a system where people who live into their 90s end their lives with nothing left.”
Then Ray Jr. told me something unexpected.
Although his dad has avoided Pearl Harbor for almost 75 years, he does plan a visit.
Haerry has chosen the USS Arizona for his final resting place.
The Navy allows survivors to receive a military funeral at the site and have their ashes placed back aboard.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Ray Jr. “He’ll be back with his friends who suffered through that day and who are now at rest.”
At that, Haerry took his hat off, turned it around and looked at the USS Arizona insignia. For a moment he seemed far away. Then he put it back on.
Ray Jr. looked at his dad in the wheelchair.
And said he couldn’t be prouder.
He said his father is a great man.