San Diego Pearl Harbor Survivors Recount The Attack
The Japanese assault on Hawaii occurred 74 years ago, propelling the U.S. into World War II
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
Judd Krier, commanding officer, USS Pearl Harbor
Susan Murphy, reporter, KPBS News
On the 74th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, San Diego survivors of the military assault recount their experiences on that horrific day that launched America into World War II.
Pearl Harbor survivors have spent a lifetime sharing their experiences about what happened on Dec. 7, 1941.
“There was a lot of hurrying around and being afraid,” recalled Gordon Jones, 93, who was walking with his brother at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu when the Japanese attacked.
“We could see these planes coming in. And they’re not our planes, and they’re dropping bombs,” Jones said.
“It was frightening. And the rifles were all in cases, and they were locked up inside the hangar,” he said. “After a while, someone banged the glass off.”
Jones said he was wearing his dress whites on that Sunday morning. He was ordered to disguise them.
“I had to take off my white uniform and dip it in the coffee urn to dye it a different color so the Japanese wouldn’t hone in on us,” he said.
Joking, he added, he was a hard target to hit.
“I was too skinny then, and they couldn’t hit me or drop a bomb near me,” Jones chuckled. “And they still owe me a white uniform.”
Ray Chavez, 103, is the oldest known living Pearl Harbor survivor. He had wrapped up an overnight shift on the minesweeper USS Condor just hours before the stealthy attack. His crew made the first enemy contact when they spotted the periscope of a Japanese submarine in the harbor and had it blown up.
When the scene returned to calm and the next hours were uneventful, Chavez went home to sleep. But it wasn’t long before his wife came running into the bedroom.
“‘Get up, get up. We’re being attacked.' And I said, ‘Who’s being attacked?’ I was half asleep. And she said, ‘We are. The Japanese are attacking the harbor.’”
Chavez said he looked out his front door.
“The whole harbor is on fire, and smoke is all over the harbor, too,” he said.
Stu Hedley, 93, was aboard the battleship West Virginia when torpedoes hit it. He had just witnessed the explosion of the USS Arizona and saw 32 bodies fly off the ship.
“Fire was three times as high as this house from the oil that was burning,” Hedley said.
He escaped by jumping into the burning sea and swimming beneath the flames. More than 100 of his crew mates died that morning.
“When we went into the water, we went as deep as we could and we swam under water,” Hedley said. “We broke the surface twice, and that’s the hottest breath of air we ever breathed.”
Hedley has dedicated the past several decades to preserving the memory of that infamous day, talking at schools and churches and to business groups. He said he hasn’t always eagerly recounted the momentous fight. Even his wife was unaware of his involvement in Pearl Harbor until their 25th wedding anniversary, when they toured the Hawaiian coast, he said.
"The moment we came around the bend, I could hear the bombs going off. I could see the ships blowing up. It was all replayed in my mind," Hedley said. "And my wife asked me, 'Butch, what’s wrong with you?' I said, 'Honey, I never told you this before, but I was here on December 7 on one of the battleships along battleship row.'”
The once-young sailors are a fading group of San Diego County veterans who lived to tell about the attack that launched America into World War II.
Nearly 2,400 Americans died that morning, 21 vessels were sunk or damaged, and 323 military planes were destroyed.
“To me, I was real proud that I was involved in doing my little bit,” Chavez said, adding his pride extends to all who served that day and the battles that followed.
Like the others, Chavez served throughout World War II. He retired from the Navy in 1945 because his psychological wounds were too much to bear.
“I got discharged, and it took about three years to get over it,” Chavez said.
Close Bond Stretches Seven Decades
The survivors share a close bond more than seven decades strong. Their hats, shirts and badges proudly display their years of service.
Also part of their exclusive club are child survivors, including Joanne "Joedy" Adams of San Diego, who was 12 and getting ready for church at her home on the Kaneohe Bay Naval Base when she heard a rumbling noise.
“The sound was getting louder and louder and the house started to vibrate slightly,” Adams recalled. “So I went out to the front porch and looked up.”
Japanese fighter planes barely brushed by the roof of her house, she said.
“As one went by just at that time and he looked down at me, we did have eye contact,” Adams said.
She rushed into her house to get her father, a Navy officer.
“By that time, my father was jumping out of bed,” Adams said. “The language was not too good,” she laughed.
He went to war. She and her mother scurried to find safety. They eventually stuffed food in pillow cases, got into the car and headed to leave the base. A Marine standing guard at the gate stopped them.
“He pointed to me. He said, ‘You watch out, let your mother drive and if a plane comes, if you see any plane anywhere in the vicinity, you pull over and get under cover.’ So, that Marine saved our life,” Adams said.
Few Survivors Remain
Seventy-four years later, Adams has four children, 10 grandchildren and eight grandchildren. She’s the head of membership for the San Diego Pearl Harbor Survivors Association — a job that does not require a lot of attention these days. Roll call once stood at nearly 1,000.
It now stands at 22, Adams said, as she pulled the thin membership folder out of her file container.
Adams, also a member of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbors Survivors Association, spends her free time talking to fifth- and sixth-graders about that historic day. It’s the age she was the day of the attack.
“A lot of them have no clue as to our history,” Adams said. “So this, to me, is very important.”
Her authentic history lesson carries a simple message, she said.
“Patriotism, loyalty to their country, respect to those who fight for their freedom,” Adams said.
And, she said, to never forget the sacrifices of those who fought to change the world.
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