The Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor, and Nicolas Maershbecker's ship was stuck.
Maershbecker was an engineer on the USS Perry, a high-speed minesweeper, and responsible for starting the boilers in the engine room. He couldn't, though, because the ship's smokestacks were still blocked by their canvas covers.
"I could not comprehend what was happening at first," Maershbecker said in a 1959 article in the Galveston Daily News. "Then I saw the Japanese insignia on the wings of the planes and I realized this was it and that we had a war on our hands."
As the bombs dropped, Maershbecker scaled the smokestacks and cut off the covers. The Perry, which usually took 90 minutes to get going, was safely out of the harbor in 12 minutes. It eventually took part in the Battle of Midway.
Maershbecker, who lived in Clear Lake, kept quiet about his war-time heroics, according to his step-daughter Mary Ainslie. She didn't learn the full extent of them, she tells Hair Balls, "until I actually sat him down ...We had to squeeze that out of him."
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But Maershbecker, who passed away on March 15 at 91, did leave a hint of what the day meant to him. He requested that his remains be cremated, and the ashes scattered in Pearl Harbor.
Ainslie and her family expected to take care of that on their own until they received a letter from the Navy about a special ceremony for Pearl Harbor veterans. They travel this weekend to the USS Utah Memorial on Ford Island, where Maershbecker will be honored with a full military funeral, 21-gun salute and all. Ainslie departs today with her mother and a small group of family and friends.
"It's very nice, and I guess there's fewer and fewer WWII veterans left, especially ones that were in Pearl Harbor that day," Ainslie says.
Maershbecker was born in North Dakota to immigrant parents from what was then Austro-Hungary. He had been scheduled for a discharge six days after Pearl Harbor but reenlisted after the bombing. He was later sent to Galveston as a navy recruiter, where he remained after retiring in with honors in 1959.