By Gary Peterson
Columnist, Bay Area News Group
CONCORD -- As dusk fell over the Cal State East Bay campus Saturday evening, a crescent moon fought to be seen through a battleship gray overcast. With the flip of a switch, the refurbished beacon atop Mt. Diablo beamed a plainly visible, bright white light that elicited cheers and a dog's bark.
The 50th annual lighting of the one-time navigational aid, to commemorate the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, was unlike any of the 49 that preceded it.
The biggest change was to the 85-year-old beacon, the rusted insides of which were replaced by a small platoon of volunteers over the summer. For the past several years, said volunteer Dick Heron, there had been no guarantee the beacon would light on Dec. 7. There was no doubt Saturday.
The other unique feature was the event's relocation from its customary spot at the summit of Mt. Diablo, where bone-chilling cold was forecast, to the Oak Room at the library on the CSU campus. An overflow crowd of approximately 200 people, twice the capacity of the lecture hall, attended. Among them were seven Pearl Harbor survivors: Contra Costa County residents Chuck Kohler, John Tait, Carl Marble, Henry Fries, B.J. Smith and John Egan, as well as Mike O'Bradovich of Milpitas. On their caravan to the CSU campus, the Contra Costa survivors stopped at St. Francis of Assisi school in Concord, and near Foothill Middle and Northgate High schools in Walnut Creek, where they were greeted by students.
Ron Brown, executive director of Save Mount Diablo, which oversaw the restoration of the beacon, was one of several speakers during an hourlong ceremony before the lighting.
"The beacon isn't just a flashlight," he said. "It's a message to people of the future. Now it will continue to shine for decades to come."
Kohler, addressed the crowd after the beacon was lit and began making its 10-second revolutions.
"They say that in the view of this beacon there may be 10 million people," he said. "That's 1 million people who can see it every second. So keep it burning. There's no other memorial quite like it."
Heron said the restoration was an emotional mission from its outset. He was there with Kohler on June 11, when the beacon was removed from its mount.
"I took (Kohler) over to introduce him to the crane crew," Heron said. "You have these big, burly, crusty men standing around, and Chuck says, 'I want you to know that when you lift the beacon off the top of that building, what you're doing is lifting my buddies off the bottom of that harbor.' And you see these guys turning their backs, wiping their eyes. One guy says, 'Where are my sunglasses when I need them?' "
To the survivors, the beacon is the keeper of a vital message which might otherwise lose resonance once they're gone.
"American people, we forget really fast," said Marble, 95, of Walnut Creek.
Marble was on Ford Island the day of the attack. That night, he said, six planes from the USS Enterprise tried to land at Ford Island. Marble was one of several machine-gunners "pouring the lead to them," believing they were enemy combatants. All six planes were shot down. Marble, who had served on the Enterprise, knew the pilots.
"These are things you never forget," he said. "You can't. It's important to remember Pearl Harbor. It's important to remember how many people died in one day."
Concord's Tait, 93, said he has called or visited several area middle schools and high schools offering to speak to students about his World War II experience.
"I have a lot of newspapers: 'Japanese Bomb Pearl Harbor,' 'Pearl Harbor Bombed,' " he said. "June 6, D-Day, I have a copy of that newspaper, 'Germany surrenders,' 'V-J Day.' Nobody has called me back."
While the survivors appreciate the beacon in terms of its message, Heron believes its import comes from shining a light on the dwindling pool of survivors.
"The feelings that these vets have, they're what make the ceremony," he said. "I'm afraid that when they're gone, we may remember Pearl Harbor, but we might not feel the depths of their emotions."