Fewer than 3,000 survivors of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor remain alive, according to staff members at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor.
The U.S. Park Service and the Navy, which jointly operate the monument, today will dedicate a new, $56 million museum and commemorate the 69th anniversary of the attack that killed more than 2,400 and launched the country into World War II.
Some survivors living in the Northwest shared the following recollections of the day that continues to “live in infamy.”
Pearl Harbor attack still vivid for Burien man, 89
SEATTLE — William Clothier was a 20-year-old Marine private aboard the battleship USS Nevada when Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The Burien man, now 89, remembers that he and a buddy were preparing to attend church on shore, hoping to meet “a better class of girls” than those who frequented the Black Cat Tavern in downtown Honolulu. He said it was a bright, beautiful Sunday morning, just before 8 a.m., when explosions shattered the quiet.
“One day you’re going to church, and two hours later you’re walking with blood on your feet and all your friends are dead,” Clothier recalled.
Clothier, a Kansas farm boy who enlisted in the Marines in 1940, said the day remains “crystallized in memory,” something the intervening years of raising a family and a career in public affairs at Boeing have done little to diminish.
Clothier said he heard a burst of machine-gun fire from the Nevada’s deck, followed by a sergeant running through the Marines’ compartment ordering men to their battle stations.
Shortly after the airstrike began, the Nevada was torpedoed on the port bow and took two bombs forward. Without their captain, who was still ashore, or the tugboats that usually guided battleships up the harbor channel, the crew got the ship under way, swung clear of the burning Arizona and raced past the other battleships in the harbor, Clothier said.
That only made the Nevada a target for a returning wave of Japanese planes, he said. Five more bombs hit the ship, including one between Clothier’s gun casemate and one opposite it. He said the ship was in danger of sinking in the middle of the channel, blocking access to the entire harbor. But the crew was able to maneuver it into shallow water, where it was beached.
Clothier said he and surviving crew members spent the afternoon on the deck moving ammunition away from fires and carrying bodies ashore.
“By then,” he said, “they weren’t bodies, they were mostly pieces.”
Clothier and his wife traveled to Hawaii on the 50th anniversary of the attack, in 1991. He marched with USS Nevada survivors, carrying a banner that said, “The Ship That Wouldn’t Die.”
The Seattle Times
Vancouver man was aboard USS California during attack
VANCOUVER, Wash. – When America went to war 69 years ago, John Leach fought the opening battle in his underwear.
Leach was aboard the USS California when Japanese warplanes targeted Pearl Harbor’s “Battleship Row.”
“I was getting up, and the first torpedo knocked me on my butt,” the Vancouver veteran said a few days ago.
“I wasn’t dressed,” he said, and Leach rushed topside without stopping to grab the rest of his clothes. He saw the sky filled with planes bearing the symbol of the rising sun on their wings.
“We could see that red circle,” said Leach, who got an even closer look at an attacker.
“One flew so low I could see him grinning at us.”
Leach and another sailor took cover under the overhang of one of the warship’s gun turrets.
“A bomb exploded. I said, ’Let’s get the hell out of here,’ and he was dead.”
Leach’s shipmate was one of almost 100 officers and crewmen killed on the USS California.
Leach, 89, will be among the Pearl Harbor survivors who are in Hawaii today to remember those who died in the attack. It will be his first trip back to Pearl Harbor for a commemorative event, Leach said.
Leach said he grew up in an Ohio orphanage, and occasionally lived on local farms. “The day after I graduated from high school, I joined the Navy.”
Leach wound up on the USS California as an aviation machinist’s mate. The battleship was equipped with two observation planes that extended its patrol range and could help the ship’s gunners zero in on targets that were miles away.
Leach serviced and maintained one of the planes and also flew as a machine gunner and a radio operator.
It was a good duty, he said, but the morning of Dec. 7 was his last day aboard the California. As burning oil from the USS Arizona floated toward his ship, Leach heard the call to abandon ship.
He swam to nearby Ford Island, where he saw some airplanes and figured that was a good place to check in.
His first assignment?
“I helped bring bodies in from the water,” said Leach, who was 20 years old back then.
“We slept in a trench that night,” he recalled. “But I was too young to be scared.”
Palouse man recalls watching attack as a boy
MOSCOW, Idaho – For a 10-year-old, Tom Townsend was surprisingly calm as he knocked on the bedroom door of his parents, who were still in bed, most likely hung over from a Saturday night out in Honolulu.
His father, Arthur, a Navy first lieutenant and damage control officer for the U.S.S. St. Louis, gave him permission to come in and asked what he needed.
“The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor,” Townsend answered.
“How do you know?” his father asked.
Townsend recounted seeing a Japanese plane, and as proof, he dumped still hot brass bullet casings on his father’s chest.
“He rose very quickly at that point – they were hot,” Townsend said.
The attack was well under way. The young Townsend, now retired in Moscow, was the first of his family out of bed on the fateful morning. Like a good son, he walked outside to retrieve the Sunday morning newspaper.
“I got up to get the newspaper, and it wasn’t there for some reason,” Townsend said. “I heard a lot of planes flying around, but that was fairly common at the time.”
But when he looked out over the harbor – seven miles away but clearly seen from his house near the top of Punch Bowl Crater – he realized what was happening was anything but a common occurrence.
“I looked at Pearl Harbor and there was a hell of a lot of planes … and then I saw the big explosions – you could see the flash, the red flare, the yellow and the dense oil smoke,” Townsend said.
As Townsend watched, a plane zoomed out from the crater, machine guns blazing, flying so close that he could see the face of a Japanese pilot, who, judging from the look on his face, didn’t expect to see a child.
“The Japanese airplane came swinging over, and I think he was pretty surprised to see me because he turned and looked at me for a second,” Townsend said, adding he quickly gathered ejected shells and hurried home.
Despite the passing of nearly six decades, Townsend remembers the attacks vividly.
“You don’t forget after you see something like that,” Townsend said. “At 10 years old it well imprints on your brain.”
Moscow-Pullman Daily News
A young mother’s memory of Pearl Harbor lives on
BREMERTON, Wash. – A Bremerton widow still can recall the experience of a military spouse on Dec. 7, 1941.
Tucked away in a box that once held a gift of chocolates is one-way ticket from Los Angeles to Honolulu.
A typed piece of yellowing paper from 1940 is neatly folded inside a ticket cover depicting the art deco face of a Polynesian woman. The name “Matson Lines,” the company running the passenger liners, is printed clearly below. Also tucked inside the old box is a faded paper orange lei that Norma Davis was given when she stepped off the ship to her new home in Oahu.
Norma Davis, 90, was in Hawaii at the time to join her husband, George W. Davis, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor. A chief boatswain’s mate, George W. Davis was serving aboard the USS Wright, an auxiliary ship that ran equipment and supplies between different islands in the Pacific Ocean.
He was on the USS Wright when 353 Japanese bombers sank or severely damaged 30 American war ships in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His ship was on its way back from stops at Wake and Midway islands – located near the Hawaiian Islands – where they had dropped off supplies and a number of U.S. Marines a few weeks earlier.
While George W. Davis watched the Japanese fighter planes fly overhead, his 21-year-old wife Norma Davis was hunkered inside their one-bedroom apartment in Kaimuki, about 30 miles east of Pearl Harbor, with their 9-month-old son George D. Davis.
“I had just gotten up to heat a bottle of milk for the baby and turned on the radio to listen to some music,” Norma Davis recalled. “I heard: ’The island is under attack. Enemy unknown. Civilians take cover. All servicemen report to your units.”’
Norma Davis was far enough away that she didn’t have to take cover, but she stayed inside. She remembers looking out a window and seeing the Japanese planes. She could hear the attack and feel the ground vibrating, but could only see smoke coming from Pearl Harbor.
The next day she went to the base with a neighbor. He wanted to check the dry dock he’d just finished building in the harbor and she wanted to check on her friend living on base. The friend had put her young daughter in the large, square Maytag washer to keep her safe during the attack, she said.
“Being there and seeing the bombing and the destruction, to me, it was just a horrendous experience,” Norma Davis said. “It was horrible. It’s sad to think it happened and we lost so many people there.”
Davis and hundreds of other military wives and family members were evacuated from the island on Christmas Day.
“That meant I had to lock the door, take the baby and one suitcase,” she said.
She shared a bunk with her infant son inside a cabin on the passenger liner S.S. Lurline to San Francisco.
George W. Davis died in 1987, and Norma Davis now calls Canterbury Manor in Bremerton home. But she visits the Hawaiian islands regularly, most recently in May to celebrate her 90th birthday with daughter and son.
Davis said on the anniversary of the attack she will remember the sacrifices and lives lost.
“It still means a lot to me,” she said. “To me it’s my holiday. I just hope that everybody always remembers.”