Like so many other U.S. Navy men stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when my great-grandfather woke up to the sound of gunfire, he assumed it was a drill.
As the Air Defense Officer on the USS Nevada, he had unexpectedly been given the day off and was awaiting the arrival of the morning paper with his daughter as the bullets and the bombs screamed down on the base a few miles away from his house.
Eventually the noise became intolerable. My great-grandfather called his brother Glover (who lived in a house overlooking the base) and asked him to see just what the hell was going on. Glover looked out his window and said that it looked like a mock battle between the destroyers and the airmen, until—and here he dropped the phone for a moment—a shell whistled over his house and exploded in the air outside.
Something was wrong at Pearl.
As soon as he heard this, my great-grandfather threw on a Hawaiian shirt and ran out to his car. He was not yet convinced the base was under attack, but he knew he should go down and report for duty on the Nevada anyway. Before he left, he drove around the neighborhood, waking up neighbors to tell them what was going on.
A combination of radio reports and the disturbing report from Glover worried my great-grandfather as he left for the base.
“When I said goodbye to Fran and the children, I wasn’t very sure when I would see them again,” he later wrote in his diary. “I told Fran to call Mary Lou and tell her to come on down for dinner because we had a big roast.”
Having made sure his family and neighbors would be okay with him away, my great-grandfather drove toward the base with several other officers in uniform. Suddenly, gunfire lit up the road behind them, and he swerved into a ditch to avoid being strafed.
“Then, with a roar, we saw the Rising Sun go past—just to the left of the road, at about treetop height,” my great-grandfather wrote. “He was so close, we could see the expression on the pilot’s face. One look convinced me.”
Pearl Harbor was under attack.
As he reached the base itself, the dire state of affairs became even more apparent—billowing black clouds from oil fires blanketed almost the entire harbor from view. Officers like my great-grandfather were running around, trying their best to react.
My great-grandfather’s own description of the carnage offers a picture of the paralyzing anger that rocked those at Pearl Harbor on that day:
There will probably never be another moment like that in my life. The sight I beheld so stunned me that I was unable to move, unable to talk, even unable to think. I could only stare in, first, amazement, then disbelief, and finally, in rage. The tears coursed down my face as uncontrolled as rain. There before me lay the backbone of the greatest navy in the world—broken, twisted wrecks in a blazing sea of oil.
Since the Nevada had sunk, my great-grandfather was a man without a ship. Still wanting to defend the base, he found a company of U.S. Marines manning anti-aircraft guns. The Marines stationed him behind a turret and until 11:30 am—about the time the attack subsided—he scanned the sky for enemy planes.
At last the blitz ended, and someone brought him a uniform, so he wouldn’t have to walk around the base looking like he had just wandered off of the golf course. He stayed at the base the rest of the day, cleaning up and helping the wounded.
This story is typical of those who remember fighting at Pearl Harbor. Walter Lord’s book, Day of Infamy, is also full of stories of men who, although taken by surprise on a Sunday morning, immediately rose up to defend their country.
The bravery of people like my great-grandfather at Pearl Harbor is not the glossy patriotism of a Hollywood movie. He did not ask for battle. But when it came anyway, threatening his family, his friends, his way of life—he did not shrink from the fight.
That’s just what you do when you love a community. Happy is the man who goes forth boldly to defend what he holds dear.
Image: December 7, 1941 USS Nevada (BB-36) afire and down at the bow, after she was bombed by Japanese planes while attempting to get to sea. Photographed from Ford Island. Note men in Nevada’s main top, manning .50 caliber machine guns. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.