JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- For the final time, retired Senior Master Sgt. Raymond Lee Perry has returned "home" to Hickam Field.
Seventy-one years to the day, Dec. 7, 2012, Perry's family culminated a journey which began with the attacks on military installations around Oahu by bringing his remains back to Hickam Field one last time to attend the Dec. 7, 1941 Remembrance Ceremony, and then say their final goodbyes as they spread his ashes in the waters of the Pearl Harbor Channel. The Federal Fire Department also performed the Fireman's Last Call, a toll of the bell 15 times in honor of Perry. This is the first time a Hickam Field survivor has had his ashes spread here.
"I don't have words to express this moment," said Elizabeth Perry, wife of the late Perry. "I'm sure he's proud, very proud of the service today. He was very brave during his last journey. He was alert to the last."
Perry first arrived in Hawaii in 1937, then a private first class with the Army's 29th Car Company. He was on temporary duty at Fort Armstrong in downtown Honolulu, when the first wave of attacks began. Soldiers at Fort Armstrong scrambled to get away from the anti-aircraft shells that rained from the sky. The contact fuses on the shells would explode when they hit the ground, since some of them didn't make contact with any aircraft.
"They were going up and coming back down and exploding in our motorpool," Perry said in a Stars and Stripes interview in December 1991. "I went over to our first sergeant and said, 'I'm volunteering.' The first sergeant answered 'You don't even know what I want volunteers for.'"
But Perry didn't hesitate.
"I said, 'I don't care. I just want to get out of here,'" he recalled.
Perry was "tired of getting shot at" as Hickam Field was getting pounded by a barrage of bullets and bombs, and was in desperate need of transportation for the wounded.
Hickam's brand new clinic had only 14 beds and couldn't handle all the dead, dying and wounded. The hallways, sidewalks and grounds were littered with men, some covered in white sheets with red silhouettes marking their places underneath. Most of the wounded were being taken to Tripler (Army hospital), which was 14 or 15 buildings across the street from Fort Shafter. Two military policemen on motorcycles escorted their convoy of five trucks to Hickam Field.
"We drove down Hangar Avenue, dodging debris, then pulled in and circled our trucks like we were protecting ourselves from Indians," he said in the interview. "There were a lot of wounded waiting. One guy had one arm blown off at the elbow and his other hand blown off. We were getting about 12 wounded into each truck and then about 8:40 a.m. somebody shouted, 'Here they come again!'"
Parked in the area between Hangar 9 and Hangar 13, everyone took cover in the closest hangar door well. After the explosions and firing subsided, they went out and found all their trucks completely demolished. Of the 17 men they had picked up, only three were still alive. Earlier, someone had taken a bed sheet, painted a large red cross on it, and attached it to the top of the center truck; but all it proved to be was a target for the attackers.
"I saw that somebody had made up a big red cross with mecurichrome on a sheet or something," he told the Stars and Stripes reporter. "That just made us a better target. The trucks were destroyed. We then tried to commandeer a flatbed truck to carry a couple more of the guys to the hospital, but the driver said he couldn't leave. One of the guys pulled out his pistol and pointed it at him and said, 'What do you mean you can't go?' Then (the driver) decided he could take them to the hospital."
Perry, a husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather, carried on his career in the Air Force and was most proud of his helping role in developing the pararescue specialist career field. He participated in numerous jumps and rescue missions as far north as Ellesmere Island, Canada and Thule, Greenland.
His daughter, Lani, said her father was a "master parachutist" and always prepared his parachute himself, never relying on someone else for his safety. He retired following a 22-year career of faithful service.
"The Air Force did take good care of the man," Elizabeth said. "Every time people would ask him, 'How long were you in the Air Force?,' he would tell them 22 years, so many days and so many hours. He had down to the hour, though I can't remember the number of hours."
Following his military career, he worked with Civil Air Transport, based in Taipei, Taiwan, from 1961 to 1965. He joined the FAA at Wake Island until 1970, and finally retired from Civil Service at Hickam Air Force Base in 1989, where he worked with the fire department as a fire safety inspector.
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Joel Shaw, now with the 647th Air Base Group, was a former Pacific Air Forces inspector general team member when he first met Perry during the 1980s. Shaw remembers answering a knock on his door where Perry was making the first of many visits to perform an in-home fire safety briefing.
"He said he was there to do a fire inspection of the houses on the installation," Shaw said. "So, he came in and did his check in the house. He was a real friendly guy and I had no idea that he was a Hickam Field survivor until now. He wasn't the type of individual to come out and say, 'I did this, or I did that.' I would have loved to hear his story when I knew him."
In his passing, just as in his life, his family said he was tough to the end. Because of the care he received at the hospice center, he made sure to shake the hand of the caregiver before he passed.
"He hadn't eaten for a week when he reached out his hand to shake the man's hand," Elizabeth said. "It's very hard. I knew he would go away, but it's still very hard.
The Perry's have been married for 47 years. During the ceremony, Elizabeth hugged the flag presented to her as tears streamed down her cheeks. She said her final goodbye to her husband as his ashes were spread into the waters of Pearl Harbor.
"I will see you soon," she said, choking back her sobs.