USS Maryland

Bakersfield's Bob Berman was aboard the USS Maryland when it was hit by Japanese bombs at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Recent high school graduates with no clear idea of their next move will want to sit still and read this. The rest of you, too, of course.

I have it on very good authority that the U.S. Navy has a lot to offer. A sense of direction in life, the lure of challenge, the prospect of advancement. Travel, adventure, camaraderie, discipline and financial stability, too. Also some potential danger, but that comes with the territory. It's the Navy.

My authority is none other than the last Kern County man to have been at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (Or so everyone seems to think; they keep turning up.)

Bob Berman doesn't want to talk about Pearl Harbor, though. He doesn't want to talk much about World War II at all. He proudly wears a blue and gold USS Maryland ball cap, his tribute to the much-decorated battleship that served with distinction from that opening salvo in Hawaii until the Japanese surrender, and his home for four years.

But, at 98 years old, the war does not define him. He has been thanked enough now, he says. He doesn't even want his picture in the newspaper.

What he really wants to talk about is the Navy and what it can do for a kid. He wants to talk about his grandson Steve, who was spinning his wheels in a dead-end job back in Louisiana, working for two bucks an hour, when grandpa stepped in.

"I told him to join the Navy," Berman says. "I told him that was the way to go."

Steve joined, served honorably and parlayed the engineering skills he learned as a seaman into a scholarship at Penn State. That degree turned into a profitable career; Steve now owns his own manufacturing company.

"And it's because of the Navy," Berman says.

What Berman doesn't want to talk about is that Sunday morning 77 years ago this month when the Maryland was one of seven ships anchored on Battleship Row, moored near Ford Island alongside the USS Oklahoma, when the first wave appeared from the north — 183 Japanese bombers and smaller "zeros." Berman, fortunately, was not aboard ship that morning.

The devastation was incomprehensible, but though the Maryland was struck that morning by two armor-piercing bombs that detonated low on her hull, and four men were lost by day's end, she survived to fight on. And fight on she did.

Berman, a Signalman whose duty was communicating with other U.S. vessels with flashing-light Morse code and the flag-position alphabet known as semaphore, was on the bridge during Fighting Mary's bombardments of Japanese emplacements on the island of Tarawa.

He was on the bridge for the bombardment of Kwajalein, and for the siege of Saipan, where the Maryland took torpedo damage to her bow.

He was there for the Battle of Leyte Gulf, months before Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously photo-opped himself ashore at Red Beach, and he was aboard when the Maryland was surprised by a kamikaze in Leyte's Surigao Straits.

He was aboard, too, when a second kamikaze struck the Maryland at the Battle of Okinawa and she limped back to Bremerton, Wash., for repairs at 11 knots — half-speed.

Images etched deep into his memory seep out now and then.

"Marines floating out toward us," he says, his eyes momentarily glazed. "Sickening."

And, citing a guesstimate of the number of U.S. military and nonmilitary deployed overseas: "I'm no hero. We had 20 million heroes."

Berman returned to civilian life outwardly unscathed, but suffered one type of debilitating injury: 100 percent hearing loss in one ear and 80 percent loss in the other from the hours, weeks and months of relentless, nearby anti-aircraft guns.

Berman, who graduated from Fairfax High School in Los Angeles in 1938, came home after the war to the San Fernando Valley and went to work for Pep Boys, rising through the ranks over 19 years to manager. He ventured out on his own in 1962 with his own auto parts warehouse and retired in 1980. He spent Saturday nights for the next 20 years square-dancing with his wife, often in the matching outfits she designed and sewed for them.

He lost her to Alzheimer's in 2008, and later lost a second wife to the same illness.

Berman still cuts a rug now and then at Brookdale Senior Living on Calloway Drive, where men, especially polished, graceful ones, can be in short supply. 

Ask him nicely and maybe he'll perform the complete semaphore alphabet. Yes, he remembers it. 

In the seven decades after the war's end, he helped raise two children, including a son who lives in Bakersfield, and for many years kept in touch with other Pearl Harbor veterans. But not anymore.

"There were 31 left that I knew of six or seven years ago," he says. "Now I'm the only one left."

Now, in true retirement, he relaxes with other residents of Brookdale, sips coffee from white styrofoam and talks about the good old days.

"It's a good life," he says.

But now it's past time for dinner, which is 3 o'clock in the afternoon at Brookdale. Berman gets up to leave.

"Don't forget what I told you," he says. "The Navy offers a lot. It's the way to go. Tell the kids."

Yes, sir.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

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