Bert Davis, one of the last survivors in Maine of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, asked his wife before he died to promise she would take his place at the annual remembrance ceremony on Munjoy Hill in Portland.
“One of the promises is I would never forget the Dec. 7 anniversary, and I would keep it if I have to crawl,” said Jo Davis, who was married to Bert Davis for nearly 25 years. Davis died this summer at the age of 94.
Saturday, the 72nd anniversary of the surprise attack that triggered the United States’ entry into World War II, is National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
As promised, Jo Davis will lay the wreath during Portland’s ceremony at 1 p.m. at Loring Memorial Park, where North Street meets the northern end of the Eastern Promenade, in memory of those like her husband who survived the attack and the more than 2,400 who died that day.
The ceremony is organized by the AmVets Charles J. Loring Jr. Post 25 on Washington Avenue, where a celebration will follow from 2 to 6 p.m. with a meal and a disc jockey performing.
William Ingraham, commander of the Portland AmVets post, said that Davis wasn’t the last Pearl Harbor survivor in Maine, but he was the post’s last member who had been at Pearl Harbor and the last active member in Maine of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.
“Bert was way more active as far as Pearl Harbor was concerned,” Ingraham said, calling him “one of the last.”
Jo Davis said that before her husband had to move from their home in Cumberland Center to the Maine Veterans’ Home in South Paris five years ago, when his Alzheimer’s disease grew too much for her to handle, he insisted that for every remembrance day ceremony, he had to either be on Munjoy Hill or in Hawaii. Davis, who served 20 years in the Navy followed by 35 years as an oceanographic researcher, died on Aug. 30.
“He would stand in just his uniform. I would beg him to put on a topcoat, but he would say, ‘No, that isn’t part of the uniform,’” Jo Davis said. “He had to be there, I don’t care what the weather. To represent the memory of Dec. 7, nothing except being in Hawaii could keep him away.”
Davis was 22 at the time of the infamous attack, having followed in his father’s footsteps to enlist in the Navy, and was serving as an engineer aboard a destroyer. He had just returned to port on Dec. 6, having escorted a supply ship under threat from a Japanese submarine.
Jo Davis said her husband described seeing the Japanese planes come in to attack the naval base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He saw the USS Arizona listing in the water after being struck by bombs and volunteered with others to go out in a boat to try to rescue survivors.
“They tried to save the guys that they could find in the water. He did tell me that most of them were dead or dead before they could reach the shore,” Jo Davis said, speaking Thursday at the home she now shares with her sister in Falmouth. “It was just a blaze of oil and fire, and I assume he could smell the burnt flesh. But that didn’t bother him as much as the guy he tried to pull from the water.”
Bert Davis’ memory of that day was documented in a 2001 story published in National Geographic magazine.
“I remember one fella that – I never will forget this one – about him reaching up for the gunnel, trying to get out with his hand coming up. And I reached down to help him, and I grabbed him right around his arm and I started pulling and all the skin came right off in my hand. But that’s the thing that sticks in my mind all the time and I have nightmares sometimes about it,” Davis said in the magazine article.
Jo Davis said that memory was the one that haunted her husband to the end.
“He’d have nightmares, saying ‘Over here, swim over here,’” she said. “How can you live with that?”
Jo Davis, who was 31 years younger than her husband, said she would accompany him every year around the anniversary of Pearl Harbor when he spoke at high schools, most often at Greely High School in Cumberland, sharing his story.
“He’d tell his story twice a day to three to four classes at a time. Brunswick and Portland, too. Anyplace that wanted him to talk about Pearl Harbor, he was there,” she said.
Jo Davis said she made one more promise to her husband, to make sure he is buried at Pearl Harbor, the place and event that defined his life. She plans to make the trip next year, to keep that promise on what would have been his 95th birthday on April 12.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: