Monday, May 28, 2001

The war arrived at dawn


Survivors recount attack on Pearl Harbor

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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James B. Osborne was on an ammunition ship, the USS Pyro, when the Japanese struck.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        They are old men now. Their hair has grayed. Their health, in many cases, is failing. Nearly 60 years have passed since that fateful Sunday morning when bombs from Japanese planes rained on them from the skies above Pearl Harbor. In less than two hours, about 2,400 American lives were lost, millions more were altered, and the course of world history was changed.

        It was a long time ago. But images remain seared into the minds of sailors, soldiers and Marines who were attacked on Dec. 7, 1941: They remember horrific explosions and burned comrades covered in oil; black, billowing smoke and angry red flames.

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Osborne in 1942
        “If you were working in the Enquirer building and it was bombed, you'd remember it,” says 81-year-old Joe Sumner of Hyde Park, who was a 22-year-old sailor aboard a Navy ship at Pearl Harbor. “When you were an 80-year-old man, you'd remember it.”

        Beginning this Memorial Day weekend and continuing through the year, Pearl Harbor's profile will rise in the national consciousness. On Friday, a blockbuster film opened in theaters. In December, the 60th anniversary of the attack will be observed. New books are being published, and television specials are being aired.

        There are as many perspectives on Pearl Harbor as there were people who witnessed the attack. The Enquirer spoke with some of the Greater Cincinnati men who were there when America was thrust into World War II. In recounting their stories, many still weep.

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        After two weeks at sea, the USS Honolulu sailed into Pearl Harbor on Friday, Dec. 5. The light cruiser tied up at a dock just across a stretch of water from Battleship Row. It was an impressive sight: seven massive ships — including the USS Arizona and USS Maryland — moored along Ford Island, in the center of the harbor.

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        The Honolulu's crew spent Friday preparing for the next day's inspection. For Joe Sumner, a pharmacist's mate, or medic, that meant scrubbing the sick bay's surgery room with a toothbrush.

        Still, Saturday's inspection didn't go well. Among other shortcomings, many sailors had failed to stencil their initials on their socks with indelible ink. (Mr. Sumner's, however, were labeled.) The angry commanding officer denied shore leave until every piece of clothing was properly marked. Mr. Sumner traded his liberty with another sailor, and stayed aboard ship.

        But James B. Osborne looked forward to a Saturday night in Honolulu. The seaman first class had arrived in the harbor that afternoon aboard the USS Pyro, an ammunition ship. It docked in an area called the West Loch, away from most other ships.

        When Mr. Osborne returned to his ship after midnight, a beer party was in progress on a nearby beach. The officer on duty ordered Mr. Osborne and others to break it up.

        “We went down and told 'em,” he says. “But we joined 'em, too.”

        He got back to the Pyro about 4 Sunday morning.

        Less than 300 miles to the north, a Japanese attack fleet approached.

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        On the Honolulu, Joe Sumner woke at 5:30 a.m., a half hour before reveille. He ate, helped sweep the ship and reported for duty in the sick bay, two decks below the main deck. He made the beds, got breakfast, and dispensed medication for three men suffering from minor ailments.

        Sometime after 7:30, another sailor assigned to sick bay left for the ship's bakery shop. He took with him a half-pint of 100 percent medicinal alcohol “to swap a little joy for some fresh sticky buns and bread,” Mr. Sumner says.

        A few minutes before 8 a.m., Mr. Sumner stepped into the shower. He felt vibrations and heard a sound “like you're on the inside of a drum.” He knew that sound. His ship's 5-inch guns were firing.

        After Saturday's fouled-up inspection, he thought, someone had ordered a Sunday drill.

        But it was no drill. Some 183 Japanese planes — the first of two attack waves — were swarming. Dive-bombers were targeting the big battleships moored at Ford Island.

        As Mr. Osborne stepped out of the shower, an alarm blared, and an urgent voice came on the public-address system: “All hands to battle stations!”

        Just then the sailor returned from the bakery, tightly squeezing loaves of bread in each hand. “He was as white as a sheet,” Mr. Sumner says, “lips moving and not a word coming out.” The man pointed up.

        “I go topside to the stern and take one long look across at Battleship Row,” Mr. Sumner says. “The Arizona has exploded. The Oklahoma is on the way to capsizing. I realized I'd be one lucky boy to be alive when the sun came up the next morning.”

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        Vincent Salotto was awakened by rumbling in his wooden barracks at Hickam Field, a U.S. Army Air Corps base just south of the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard. The 21-year-old plane mechanic ran outside to see dive-bombers and fighters — rising sun emblems on their wings — swoop low over the field.

        The U.S. Army's planes were neatly lined up, wingtip to wingtip, as a precaution against sabotage. They were easy pickings for the Japanese pilots.

        “We were getting our planes ready (to fly) during the attack,” says Mr. Salotto, who worked feverishly to repair the flap on a light attack bomber.

        “Every time one of those Japanese fighters came by strafing us, we had to get out of there. We would rush out of our planes and hit the ground.”

        Hickam Field was under attack for only 10 minutes during the attack's first wave, but 182 men were killed or missing.

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        On the battleship Maryland, Wayne Martin, a 21-year-old machinist's mate, was in a wash room. He planned to visit a friend on a hospital ship who'd had an appendectomy two days earlier.

        He first heard machine gun fire, then a bugler sounding general quarters. Barefooted and in his underwear, Mr. Martin ran for his locker, his feet stinging from slivers of metal on the machine shop floor.

        As he dressed, he staggered as his ship shuddered several times. Torpedoes were striking the USS Oklahoma, moored next to the Maryland.

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        When alarms sounded on the USS San Francisco, Joe Whitt, a seaman second class, was getting a guitar lesson. The heavy cruiser was docked near the Honolulu.

        Mr. Whitt rushed to his battle station, the No. 1 gun turret. Behind him, Hickam Field was burning. In front of him was Battleship Row.

        “The Oklahoma had just rolled over when I got out on the deck,” he says. “That big pink bottom, that was the most awesome sight. This big battleship, just the bottom sticking up.

        “That is the most sickening feeling that you can ever experience.”

        The Arizona, struck by shells designed to penetrate armored decks, “was just a mass of burning steel,” Mr. Whitt says. Another battleship, the USS West Virginia, had been torpedoed and was submerged up to its main deck.

        Oil hemorrhaged from the ruptured bows of ships, coating the harbor in black slime.

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        Wayne Martin hurried to his battle station, an area on the Maryland where heavy-duty tools were stored. He lugged a 40-pound air drill topside. From the deck, he could see oil burning on the water's surface, and men swimming through flames. Small boats from his ship were picking up survivors.

        Mr. Martin's first orders were to join a rescue crew and attempt to cut holes in the sides or bottom of the capsized Oklahoma. That plan was abandoned for lack of adequate tools and hoses. He was sent below deck.

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        Morris Dailey was a 19-year-old Marine private assigned to an anti-aircraft machine-gun crew at the Navy Yard, where ships were repaired at huge docks. He was asleep when the attack began.

        He and fellow Marines rushed to warehouses where their weapons were locked up. By the time they were handed out and assembled, most of the damage from the first attack wave had been done.

        On the Honolulu, Joe Sumner headed toward the stern. He tried unsuccessfully to hammer open storage lockers where medical supplies were locked up. When an order came to close all hatches and stay put, he lay down on an open deck, watching planes buzz overhead.

        “I had to wait it out, and I didn't want to wait it out in the dark,” he says. “If I was going to get it, I wanted to see the guy who gave it to me.”

        A bomb hit on the ship's port side, near the dock. Another exploded behind the USS St. Louis, which was tied to the Honolulu. Mr. Osborne could feel his heart jump under his white uniform.

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        At 8:50 a.m., 167 Japanese aircraft began the second wave of the attack.

        On the San Francisco, Mr. Whitt had moved out of the No. 1 gun turret, where he could do little good. Ammunition had been removed from the big guns because the ship was being readied for dry dock; what's more, they were designed for long-range targets.

        So when word spread that rifles were being distributed, Mr. Whitt volunteered. He retrieved a .30-caliber Springfield rifle, a bandoleer of ammunition and a World War I helmet, then rushed to an open deck where he took aim at Japanese planes.

        Amid a backdrop of thick black smoke, flames and explosions, the enemy aircraft came in low and fast “like a swarm of hornets. They seemed to be everywhere,” he says.

        A hail of machine-gun fire caught men swimming in the harbor's flaming, oily-black water.

        “There was no mercy,” he says.

        In the West Loch, the Pyro also was under fire. “I thought they was gonna blow everything out of the water,” says James Osborne, who had no trouble staying awake even though he'd partied until 4 a.m.

        He manned a 3-inch anti-aircraft gun on the ship's starboard side. From there, “It looked like planes and smoke everywhere.” The planes flew low enough that “If I'd had a rock, I could have hit them.”

        In the engineering tool room of the Maryland, Wayne Martin cut strips of cloth for use as towels. He and shipmates used it to wipe oil from Oklahoma survivors who'd been brought aboard.

        “Some of them were burned, and hurtin' like hell,” Mr. Martin says, and he pauses to compose himself.

        After the attack ended at 9:45 a.m., Joe Whitt and other San Francisco crew mates assisted at the Navy Yard docks as victims were brought in on small boats. Some were completely covered in black oil, except for the redness around their lips.

        “When you would reach out and get ahold of some of them,” Mr. Whitt says, “they were burned so bad the flesh would just peel right off.”

        Morris Dailey's anti-aircraft machine-gun crew positioned themselves at the mouth of the harbor near the Navy Hospital. He saw oil-covered victims brought in on flat-bed trucks.

        “They laid them out on the grass. They were all just unidentifiable. Just laid them out in rows on the grass there by the hospital.

        “And when they took these guys up off the grass and buried them, why, the (outline) was there on the grass, and the oil killed the grass.”

        As darkness descended on Pearl Harbor, tensions ran high.

        Nobody slept that night.

        Joe Sumner, the pharmacist's mate, was stationed behind 5-inch guns on the damaged Honolulu. An emergency medical bag was slung over his back.

        “The rumors were thick as mosquitoes,” Mr. Sumner says. Had the Japanese landed at Waikiki? Was a second air attack coming?

        “Everybody expected that (the Japanese) were going to finish the job, that we were going to be prisoners of war when the sun came up the next morning.”

        More than 12 hours after the attack, with ships and military installations still ablaze, six fighter planes with landing lights on closed in on Ford Island, in the center of the harbor.

        Nervous gunners on ships and on land started firing.

        “Every damn gun in the harbor turned loose and we blasted them to smithereens,” Mr. Sumner says. “I shall never forget that.”

        Nor will he forget the frantic cry that came too late: “They're ours! They're ours! Cease fire!”

        The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt described Dec. 7, 1941, as a date that would live in infamy. It lives, too, in the hearts and minds of men like Joe Sumner, who says, “I know the price of freedom.”

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