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The surprise of war

Sun., Dec. 7, 2008, midnight

Warren Schneider enlisted wanting to fly; the Pearl Harbor attack landed him in a trench.

Warren Schneider knows just how unprepared the United States was for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

When he came off guard duty at 6 a.m. that December morning 67 years ago today, he was told to turn in his rifle and ammunition, have breakfast, and go sleep in a tent to avoid waking up the other soldiers in the barracks.

It was Sunday, and everyone who wasn’t in church was sleeping in, he said.

About an hour later, he awoke to the sound of explosions and rushed out to see smoke coming from the harbor, where Navy ships were burning and Japanese planes were flying.

“A big, tall sergeant said, ‘Well, I guess this is it,’ ” Schneider, a retired teacher who lives in west Spokane, recalled recently. “We thought we better get out of this (tent) because all that was protecting us was canvas. I wasn’t afraid. I was more angry that they took away my rifle, and here are the Japanese coming.”

The soldiers scrambled to an area more secure from the attacking planes, and somebody went to gather rifles and ammunition.

The Japanese attack that morning propelled the United States into World War II, put the country on a full wartime footing and changed Americans’ lives forever.

Schneider was a 21-year-old private in the Army Air Corps, training to be a mechanic for bombers at the airfield south of the Pearl Harbor naval station. He’d been in uniform since February.

As a child in New Jersey, Schneider loved planes. Charles Lindbergh was his hero. “I wanted to get to fly, so I thought, ‘I’ll join the service.’ ” His parents were “more or less against it,” but eventually signed a document allowing him to enlist months before his 21st birthday.

After some training, he was sent to Hickam Field on Oahu, where he learned how to work on bomber engines while waiting for a chance to get into flying school. He also spent a fair amount of time on KP, or kitchen patrol, and on guard duty at water towers and power stations and other structures. He considered the patrols routine, and there wasn’t anything special about the one he finished less than an hour before the attack.

“I really wasn’t (expecting war),” he said. “But there were rumors all the time.”

After the attack began, the soldiers in his unit were issued weapons and ammunition. Schneider grabbed two belts of cartridges and crossed them over his chest like he’d seen in pictures of Mexican bandits.

“I wasn’t about to be caught short,” he said.

He and another soldier were sent to one end of the runway. They found a rusty shovel, dug a trench and waited, facing the harbor. Why they dug it out in the open, rather than finding a spot with some cover, he doesn’t know. But from there they could see smoke from planes burning on the flight line. His unit had a row of B-17 bombers, most of which were destroyed when boxes of flares and other incendiary devices inside them ignited and exploded. That’s why photos of the destruction show bombers with their noses up and huge holes in the middle, he said.

The planes were parked in a row so they could be protected easily from what the military thought was the biggest threat: a ground attack. When the air attack came, nearly all were destroyed.

“It wasn’t like you see in the movies with everything blowing up and people racing everywhere,” he said. “I feel sorry for the fellas aboard those ships, though.”

Schneider and his partner waited in their trench all day. At one point, a plane with a red nose appeared above a hangar, and they almost fired at it until he realized he’d seen an American P-40 just like it a few days earlier. They held off, and the U.S. plane flew past. In the evening, it started to rain, and they sat in the trench and waited. The next morning, an officer came and told them to report in. He spent much of the next three weeks on guard duty.

One day Schneider saw a notice that applications were being accepted for flight training. He applied, passed the exam, and was sent to flight school in Hemet, Calif. He remembers coming into San Francisco Bay as blimps hovered above the water, watching for submarines.

Schneider washed out of flight school and signed up to train as a mechanic for B-25s and B-26s. “I thought, ‘This is my chance to get back into the war,’ I just felt like I wanted to do something.”

He became an accomplished mechanic for the big bomber engines but remained in the States. At one point he injured his back and needed an operation. While in the hospital, he met the woman in charge of recreation activities; she became his wife.

Schneider applied to become a flight engineer on B-29s, but by the time he arrived in Texas for training, the war was winding down and he was sent to Roswell, N.M., to work on engines. He never got back to the South Pacific for the war, but he did, inadvertently, see a hint of the war’s end.

Working one graveyard shift on bomber engines, he said, “There was a great big flash, brilliant, way out in the distance.” He didn’t realize it, but the mechanics had seen the flash of the first atomic explosion, at the Trinity Test Site, about an hour to the west of Roswell.

“We didn’t have any idea about what an atomic bomb was,” he said.

Like many World War II veterans, Schneider went to college on the GI Bill. “I never thought I was capable of going to college before that, but being in the military, you mature.”

He became a teacher, and for more than 30 years taught fifth, sixth and eighth grades in California. After his wife, Margaret, died in 1991, he moved to Colorado, and eventually came to Spokane, where his son Chris and his family live.

Schneider said he doesn’t think about the war much, and while he wanted badly to get back into combat at the time, he has no regrets now. When he dies, though, he wants to be cremated and have his ashes divided. Half will be buried near his wife in California; the other half will be dropped into the Japan Current, the warm water that flows west from Hawaii to Japan.

“They can just float around in the South Pacific … whatever that means.”

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