Pearl Harbor Day given its due via longstanding memorial event
When the Japanese Imperial Japanese Navy Service made a surprise military strike on the United States at the naval base at Pearl Harbor at 8 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 1941, more than 180 U.S. aircraft were destroyed, 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 others were wounded. Until September 11, 2001, it was the deadliest attack on American soil. Eight-plus decades later, the Long Island Air Force Association (LIAFA) will be hosting its annual “Dropping of the Roses” Pearl Harbor Memorial Celebration on Wednesday, Dec. 7, an event the LIAFA has been hosting for the past 26 years at the American Airpower Museum at Farmingdale’s Republic Airport.
Col. (ret.) Bill Stratemeier will serve as the master of ceremonies, a role he’s played since LIAFA took on hosting these festivities and one he takes very seriously.
“It’s all about honoring the sacrifice of what Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation—the soldiers who fought in World War II,” Stratemeier explained. “We can never forget the bloodshed and sacrifice of the men and women in our armed services in protecting our freedoms as we know them today and every conflict since.”
The seed for Dropping of the Roses dates back to 1970 when it was started by the late Joseph Hyrusko. A military medic serving on the U.S.S. Solace as the Pearl Harbor attack was gone around him, Hyrusko’s good fortune meant the hospital ship he was aboard wound up not getting attacked. To that end, he spent the next 48 hours saving 200 to 400 people, including diving into the water to rescue 15 trapped sailors from the nearby sunken U.S.S. Oklahoma. Years later Hyrusko would recount hearing other seamen who were stuck in this underwater tomb tapping out S.O.S. signals on the hull of this bombed vessel. It’s a sound he said would haunt him to his dying days.
Hyrusko’s experience that day inspired him to hop into the cockpit of his own plane on December 7, 1970, load up with American Beauty roses—one for each year passed of the Pearl Harbor attack and fly over the Statue of Liberty, where he’d unload them at the exact time of the attack—12:55 p.m., New York time. While Hyrusko passed away behind the cockpit of his plane in the mid-1980s, his gesture lives on. The current Dropping of the Roses memorial features plenty of patriotic fervor, ranging from the singing of “The National Anthem” and “God Bless America” to a the reading of a psalm and a moment of silence observed as “Taps” is played in honor of veterans and people directly related to the LIAFA or the museum are announced as being deceased. This pomp and circumstance even includes the Navy tradition of ringing a bell for each name read. And while a number of local dignitaries are on hand to lend support, making the ceremony all the more special is the attendance of a number of World War II veterans.
For a very long time, LIAFA invited members of a local Pearl Harbor Survivors Association to attend with the peak number showing up to be around 14. Over time, this special group of veterans has died off and withered away.
“Over the years, the Pearl Harbor Survivor Association would always go down to their local waters wherever their chapter was and throw a wreath into the water on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day,” Stratemeier said. “They were getting to be frail and elderly and it was getting too cold to be out doing that, so we invited them to our ceremony. This will be either the third or fourth year in a row now where we’ll have World War II veterans at our ceremony. This year we’re going to have two guys who are 100 years old and I think the youngest guy is 96. We try to get younger generations there, but it’s hard. We’re talking to an older audience—all gray-haired and bald people.”
The dearth of awareness about this Day That Will Live in Infamy does give cause for concern about the day and its importance in history.
“It slips further and further into the recesses of our mind with each generation that comes along,” Stratemeier said. “My father is still alive. He’s 96 and he was at Okinawa. But for the most part, you talk to people they know of somebody and it’s their father or grandfather who is now deceased. You have to depend on those experiences to keep all this alive and to keep it going.”
By the time the pilot is ready to take off, he will have had 81 American Beauty roses (including one extra white rose for 9/11) blessed by a chaplain and handed to him by a Navy corpsman. And while Stratemeier has been the host of Dropping of the Roses for nearly two and a half decades, the solemnity, emotion and patriotism of the even never get old for the 26-year Air Force man.
“People love it and we love doing it,” he said.
The public is welcome to attend the “Dropping of the Roses” Ceremony on Dec. 7. Free admission is between 10:30 a.m. and noon. After 12 p.m. $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and veterans, $10 for kids 5 to 12. No tickets or pre-registration necessary.