Standing in the presence of greatness
One hundred years…..that’s how long Cecil Taylor of Gates County has been around.
As I stood outside his home on Saturday, Sept. 19 and waited for a birthday parade in his honor to start, I was in the presence of a man who had spent a lifetime as part of our nation’s history.
The first thing that always comes to mind when Cecil Taylor’s name is mentioned is his service to our nation. He was only 21 years old on Dec. 7, 1941, a day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said is “a date which will live in infamy.”
It was on that day that Japanese fighter planes launched an attack on Pearl Harbor. Nearly 20 U.S. Navy vessels, including eight battleships, and over 300 airplanes were damaged or totally destroyed. More than 2,400 Americans died in the attack, including civilians, and another 1,000 people were wounded.
Cecil Taylor was there, a member of the U.S. Army and assigned to Schofield Barracks. He was on the verge of being discharged and had joined some members of his unit for a night out on the town on Saturday, Dec. 6.
“We celebrated all night — we lived it up because we knew we’d probably never be back,” said Taylor in an interview with this newspaper several years ago. “Driving back to our base, the taxi driver brought to our attention how beautiful the harbor was that morning, but I didn’t want to see anything but the bed after being up all night.”
Making it back to his housing, Taylor went upstairs, undressed, and crawled into bed just as the first explosion sounded, shaking the earth’s foundation. Initially, Taylor thought a volcano had erupted, having experienced that in Hawaii and knowing that they can cause tremors, even on neighboring islands. Hearing the commotion in the streets, however, Taylor quickly realized that this was no volcano.
As quickly as Taylor had stumbled into the bed he was scurrying back out for a better view.
“I looked out to see bombs being dropped,” said Taylor, describing the scene as one of red blaze and smoke.
In the midst of watching the action unfold, another plane caught Taylor’s eye as it was flying unusually low, and slowly. As the pilot flew overhead of Taylor and a fellow soldier standing by his side, he looked down and waved at them; they returned the gesture with a thumbs-up, not knowing they were encountering the enemy.
“We didn’t know anything about the rising sun then (referring to the painting under wings), we thought it was one of us,” said Taylor.
The plane circled back and fired at Taylor and his friend. “He missed,” said Taylor. “But that’s when I found out I could have won a gold medal in the 100-yard dash.”
The rest of that day, and the next several days, were spent in chaos — not fully grasping what had taken place, trying to maintain order in the streets, and preparing to defend themselves against any further attacks they may face, having limited resources.
Taylor remained in Hawaii for exactly one more year before boarding a boat to Italy, where he would encounter more combat, more loss, and more close calls on his own life. There was the battle of the hills: Marines would come and take the hills during the day and the Japanese would take them back at night.
While in Italy, Taylor contracted yellow jaundice, and then malaria.
“They put me in what you call the dying tent, and that didn’t feel good either,” said Taylor, “but I guess they figured I had outlived them.”
Taylor was shipped to another hospital in New Zealand; he was in and out of various hospitals for the next year.
“I came out as free as a bird and never regretted my time in the military,” said Taylor.
Back home in Gates County, he sought out a young lady he briefly met before he shipped out for Hawaii. They corresponded by letter for the next five years.
Cecil and Lillian Taylor have been married now for 76 years.
“I remember the first time I saw her….she was the prettiest thing I had ever seen, and she’s still pretty, just like a flower,” Cecil said on his 100th birthday, clutching her hand as they sat outside in anticipation of the start of the parade.
For a man who has witnessed 100 years of state, national and world history, and survived enemy fire, he still has a soft spot in his heart for the woman who faithfully awaited his return.
Here’s hoping I can shake Cecil Taylor’s hand on Sept. 19, 2021.
Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7207.