Duckler: It’s always a good time to remember those who sacrificed

  • Vet documentary fillmmaker Dan Marcek had a 30-year career in high-tech before he got laid off and stumbled into his film career. Now he is creating a library of voices and experiences and emotions, something vitally important, especially for the soon-to-be-gone World War II generation. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/6/2016 10:59:46 PM

There was a lot of work left undone when Eddie Aho, barely 20, arrived at Pearl Harbor shortly after the day of infamy, 75 years ago today.

The smell of oil and burnt debris and death remained in the air when the late resident from New Ipswich learned what his first assignment was: Build coffins.

By Aho’s own account, hundreds of them.

“They were still burying the people who had died at Pearl Harbor,” Aho, who died two years ago at age 93, told filmmaker Dan Marcek of Brookline in 2011. “They had to put them into graves, there were morgues, wherever they kept them at that time. So one of our first jobs was setting up a workshop and building coffins.”

Aho’s story is part of Marcek’s story, which for the past six years has been to film and record the thoughts of veterans for his website, Vetflix. He’s covered training before war and post-traumatic stress disorder upon returning home, plus everything in between, from World War II through the current War on Terror.

Marcek had a 30-year career in high-tech before he got laid off and stumbled into his film career. He met a 12-year-old boy, through a mentoring program, who told him about a 100-year-old man living in the nearby woods who needed help building a table.

Marcek ventured into the woods and found a man who was, indeed, exactly 100-years-old. His name was Bob Flannery, and he never married nor had any children.

Soon, Flannery told Marcek stories from his days as a member of the Seabees, the Navy’s construction unit, and Marcek was off and running. He won’t get rich from his new career, unless your definition of rich goes beyond dollar figures.

In short, Marcek felt a burning desire to move past the “Thanks for your service” line we often use when meeting veterans. He’s creating a library of voices and experiences and emotions, something vitally important, especially for the soon-to-be-gone World War II generation.

“We found that our films offer a unique glimpse into the veterans’s world,” Marcek told me by phone. “What’s it like to be with a bunch of people on a life threatening mission? What’s it like to be making these decisions every day? I didn’t realize that these people are all around me in my community, and if I’m not sensitized to what they’ve done so we can be free, I don’t really appreciate the cost they paid.”

That cost included an event that was documented in interviews with two men, Norman Hill of Newmarket and Jim Hassan of Vermont. They were there when Pearl Harbor exploded in flames and hundreds died.

On May 21, 1944 – nearly 2 ½ years after the Dec. 7 incident, the one you’ve heard about, the one that fills the history books.

This tragedy was an accident, not an attack, as the United States prepared to invade the Japanese-held Mariana Islands. The official cause of the detonation was never confirmed, but the most likely explanation was either a mortar round accidentally dropped while being unloaded, or the ignition of gas vapors from someone welding or perhaps a cigarette.

What’s indisputable are the casualties involved from fires that spread through an explosive chain reaction: 163 Naval personnel killed, 396 injured.

It’s known as The Second Pearl Harbor.

“Along about 5 o’clock all hell broke loose down in the harbor,” Hill told Marcek four years ago. “There was a big explosion and smoke rolling, and from the vantage point where we were located, you could see sailors jumping off the ship.

“The next day at the concrete plant, where I overlooked the Naval cemetery,” Hill continued, “they took a big bulldozer, built a trench and started bringing caskets and covered over them.”

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you had no knowledge of this. At the time, a press blackout was ordered, meaning survivors could not discuss what they had seen and experienced.

The military released a vague statement a few days later, and the full extent of what happened was not declassified until 1960.

“It’s a little known war story,” Marcek said. “A lot of people haven’t heard about it.”

Not so with what happened 75 years ago today, which remains a black-and-white image of smoke and sinking ships in our minds.

It’s not clear when Aho, whose online segment is brief, got to the site of the most important event in American history. But it’s obvious that men still needed a final resting place after the Japanese attack killed 2,403 Americans.

“He was a carpenter when he got to Pearl,” said Marcek, referring to Aho. “They were still burying them, even months later, and they had a wood shop that was making coffins right there. I just thought as I was filming, ‘Wow, that’s pretty close to touching it.’ ”

Touching something that happened so long ago becomes harder each year. Only about 2,000 veterans are left who were at Pearl Harbor that day, 75 years ago.

“We figured all these stories are much more useful to society than they are sitting in someone’s draw,” Marcek said. “We figured we’re missing an opportunity to use these stories to better society by showing them and framing them.

“It good for people to think about it.”


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.



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