For a sadly shrinking number of people raised on Glenn Miller and soda fountains, the attack on Pearl Harbor isn’t just a page in the encyclopedia.
They were there. They watched or fought as 21 of America’s ships and more than 300 planes were damaged or destroyed that morning. About 3,700 of their friends and shipmates were among the day’s dead or injured.
The survivors never were the same. The attack left a permanent stamp on their lives that affected the way they viewed life and their place in it.
Here are two of their stories:
Drenched and bewildered
One Post Falls man was engulfed by World War II’s sudden and furious beginning, and also witnessed its solemn, longed-for end.
But on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 - “a date which will live in infamy” - the only thing on Glen Hills’ mind was tennis.
“I was in the shower, getting ready to play in a tennis tournament,” remembered Hills, now 73. He planned to go ashore from the USS Medusa to compete at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
History had other plans.
Still in the shower, Hills heard the terrible roar of explosions tearing at the hulls of American ships.
“The torpedoes hit. I heard somebody screaming, ‘Can’t the Army quit practicing on Sundays even?”’
No one aboard the Medusa was worried about an attack that day. Certainly not Hills. Until then, being stationed at Pearl Harbor had been a fun adventure for the 18-year-old from Utah.
He graduated from high school at 15, and at 17 was awarded a football scholarship at Utah State University. But during his first year, the Army sent him a draft notice, ordering him to show up for a physical. Uncle Sam wanted him in the active reserves.
Preferring sailing to soldiering, he drove from Logan to Salt Lake City the next morning and told the Navy, “I do.”
After basic training, he went to Pearl Harbor. Americans were worried about Hitler, Hills said, particularly the threat the Germans posed to Great Britain. Hawaii, with its sunny skies and and beautiful beaches, seemed a world away. Besides, he worked in the personnel office of an auxiliary ship that rarely left port.
So as shells burst outside the USS Medusa, a drenched, bewildered Hills rushed out of the shower and onto the main deck, wearing only a towel. The air was alive with fighters, their props chopping at the air. The blue skin of the sea was scarred by the rippling tracks of bullets.
“My first thought was, ‘How did the Germans get here?’ Then I saw the Rising Sun. And I knew.”
He headed for the bridge, but found himself alone. So the seaman first class picked up the battle phone - which relayed orders throughout the ship - and yelled: “Fire at will!”
The Medusa’s guns erupted skyward. Eventually, an ensign arrived on the bridge and told Hills what orders to holler through the phone.
The Japanese assault lasted about 2-1/2 hours, Hills said. “It seemed like a couple of weeks.”
Near the climax of the battle, the Japanese pilots ran out of bombs.
“They began to strafe,” Hills remembered. “I detested that strafing - they really ricochet.” The sound of the discharge followed by the sharp, hollow clang of metal to metal “made a helluva racket.”
By the time it was over, two ships near the Medusa were out of it. The USS Utah had rolled over, the USS Raleigh went down. But the Medusa still was afloat, despite six near-misses by bombers.
The ship’s crew of repairmen had downed two dive bombers and sunk a submarine. And after the battle was over, the crew switched to what they did best: They repaired the Raleigh and sent it home to the mainland.
Except for a stint at Annapolis, Hills spent the war at sea. He remembers being aboard a ship off Okinawa at night, its lights off. Kamikazes - flying what amounted to torpedoes with wings - would skim the dark waters, hoping to crash into Allied ships they couldn’t see. And Hills lived through five landings in the Philippines.
When it all ended on Sept. 2, 1945, Hills was aboard a ship parked along-side the USS Missouri when the treaty ending the war was signed. Instead of finding a new life, Hills made the Navy his career. He retired in 1959.
Sitting in an easy chair in his home this week, the white-haired man sat back, remembering.
“They were tough,” he said. “And I’m just fortunate as hell to be here talking to you guys.”
‘They didn’t care who they hit’
Susette Pitts spreads out black-and-white pictures on the counter in her Coeur d’Alene home. Then she gingerly produces her late husband’s naval discharge papers, stained with water and oil from one of the two times that a ship he was aboard was sunk.
A ritzy menu - signed by staff and patients of the Navy hospital at Pearl Harbor - is a memento from Christmas dinner 1941.
Pitts clearly remembers the names of the men she helped nurse back to health after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And as horrible as the event was, she still smiles at the mention of those days.
“It’s something that’s very hard to describe, but you feel it in your bones when you talk about it,” she said. Pitts and her husband, Jack, both survived the attack. She was a government employee, he was in the Navy.
But the two never met until 1947.
Fifty-five years ago today, Susette Pitts was getting ready to go on a picnic. She and a friend were making corn bread. Her friend, a Navy wife, lived in military housing.
That day started like one of many such tropical days.
Pitts loved that she could go Christmas shopping in shorts, and take leisurely walks around all of Oahu in just two hours. She bought papayas, bananas and pineapple “for practically nothing” from local merchants.
Pitts went to Hawaii from California to work as a naval clerk. At night, she volunteered at the Navy hospital.
That blissful life came to an end when the Japanese attacked.
Pitts stared out the window of the base apartment in shock. Fighters came so close, she could see the pilots’ faces. “It was scary when those planes came in. They didn’t care who they hit…I knew girls who tried to hide under the couch.”
That night and for nights to come, Pitts worked at the hospital. One man had 210 fractures in his face; Pitts would spread his lips for him and insert a straw so he could drink. Another sailor, face bandaged, insisted on smoking. Pitts had to raise and lower his hand to help.
“It’s a pitiful sight to see men begging not to be sent back to the States because they want to go and fight for the honor of their friends,” Pitts remembered.
One man’s leg had been blown off. Another died from a bullet in his brain. “That was a blessing from God, to take him home.”
After returning from the hospital that first night, Pitts, who was raised in a strict home, decided a drink might not be such a bad idea.
A friend “poured us…something,” Pitts said. “It gave us courage for the night.”
In February, the Navy sent the civilians home. They traveled in the dark, radios silent.
Her ship, the USS Garfield, was escorted by the USS Henley. A man named Jack Pitts was aboard.
Five years later, in San Diego, “just another drunk sailor” came stumbling out of a bar.
And right into Pitts’ heart.
He walked right into her, knocking her down. They got to talking.
When Jack Pitts heard this pretty lady had been aboard the Garfield, he flirted, “You mean that luxury liner? We escorted your ship back to the States, and boy did we hate it.” She told him sailing aboard a Navy ship was no picnic, either.
The next month, they were engaged. They married a month later. “They said it would never last,” Pitts said. “It lasted 49 years and 15 days.”
They raised four adopted children.
The couple returned to Pearl Harbor for the attack’s 50th anniversary.
Jack Pitts died last March.
Fewer than 100 survivors from the USS Arizona are still alive, and only 11 are in Hawaii for the 55th anniversary reunion this week. About 450 survivors from other ships and military bases will participate in ceremonies today.
“There are fewer of us all the time,” Pitts said.
But their places are secure in the history books.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 photos (1 color)
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