LAFAYETTE -- Freedom is never free.
The four-word phrase stamped itself into permanent, collective memory on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, starting a world war, ending lives and forever changing a brash, confident America.
The words resonated at the end of the first stanza of a remembrance poem by Pearl Harbor survivor E.J. "Chuck" Kohler, of Concord, at a Dec. 2 Lafayette Historical Society presentation.
Gathered to honor the sacrifices made on a day when military tactic equaled terroristic attack -- there was no preceding declaration of war, although it is common knowledge there were warnings an assault was imminent -- approximately 50 people, including five World War II veterans, experienced the devastation through the rapid-fire recall of 88-year-old Kohler.
Stationed on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor, Kohler was then 17, a fresh-faced farm boy from Minnesota.
"I was up in an office trying to type a letter to my dear, sweet mother," Kohler began. "I was hunt-and-pecking, when I heard an approaching aircraft."
The sound wasn't unusual; this was a naval air base. But it was Sunday, and that struck him as odd.
"Then the sound changed. I knew it was in a power dive. Even so, I told myself it was a pilot doing some hot-dogging. I was thinking, 'I don't want to be in his shoes when the captain finds out.' Little did I know, we were in a lot more trouble than that."
A tremendous explosion shot glass and debris into the room. Stunned, Kohler thought he'd best get outside to help. Ripping the letter from the typewriter to avoid possible later punishment, he crumpled the note, tossed it aside and rushed outside to a world he'd never encountered before.
"I saw a plane coming in with blinking, flashing lights. Being a farm boy, I didn't recognize them -- found out later they were actually machine guns going off," he laughed, amazed at his ignorance and the inexplicable luck allowing him to tell his story 71 years later.
A bomb, strapped to the bottom of the plane was a considerable distraction.
"When I saw that big red Rising Sun by the starboard wing -- I realized these weren't the friendly boys I thought they were," Kohler said.
After being chewed out by a duty officer for refusing to take cover in a construction ditch ("I wanted my family to know that I died fighting, not hiding," Kohler declared), he and another soldier took action.
"There were bombs and bullets ringing down and all our ammo was locked up. We finally got a mounted machine gun. The biggest gun I'd ever handled on the farm was a .22. This thing was like a canon without wheels!"
They managed to hoist it up into a plane.
"Now, I'm hearing popping sounds; bullets slamming through the fuselage. My country boy instinct kicked in -- where I grew up, being a good shot was the difference between dinner and going hungry -- and I laced a trail along one plane."
Eventually, Kohler said planes "like swarms of bees" descended, before the smoke grew thick and blacked them out. Pointing to a nearby Japanese photo, taken at approximately 8 a.m., he showed the audience an unscathed USS Arizona, moments before it was hit and sank.
"I went back in 2010 for the very first time in 64 years," he said. "I went on the USS Arizona Memorial -- the ship I'd seen blown up, the bodies floating in the water, the waste of war I remembered -- but this time, it was different."
Instead of describing his feelings, Kohler read a poem he wrote after returning to his Concord home. It is a call to never forget, and a declaration for a cause he champions with the fervor of a young boy: preserving and lighting the Mount Diablo beacon.
"Go to the light at the top of Mount Diablo and light the light," Kohler's poem concluded.
Wayne Korsinen, a retired Antioch High School history teacher and chairman of the Pearl Harbor Day Ceremony on Mount Diablo, opened the program with a lively dramatization. Presenting the attack through the historical character of then-Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Korsinen illuminated the shock and surprise of the attack.
Questions from the audience received explanations of Japan's reasons for bombing U.S. battleships (a belief that surface engagement would win the war -- not aircraft) and how midget submarines tracking U.S. ships and mobile radar signals showing unidentified "blips" were dismissed by American military commanders.
Kohler, looking as if he could, even today, resist the monumental force of an invading army, encouraged young and old to "never forget" and to "light the light" on Mount Diablo at 3:45 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7.