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Ray Daves, a sailor at Pearl Harbor, never forgot the smell of death

Originally published Dec. 6, 2007. Ray Daves died June 3, 2011, at age 91.

The smell.

That’s the one thing Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Daves can never forget. The one thing movies aren’t able to capture. The smell of burning oil and the stench of charred human flesh.

Sixty-six years ago, Daves was a 21-year-old sailor, stationed at Pacific Fleet headquarters in Pearl Harbor. The Deer Park resident and president of the Lilac City Chapter of Pearl Harbor Survivors recently shared his memories. Black-and-white photos show a handsome young man, enjoying his deployment in Hawaii. The pictures capture carefree memories of a time that quickly and unexpectedly turned tragic.

“I still have bad dreams and nightmares about the things I saw and heard that day,” he said.

Daves was on his way to breakfast on Dec. 7, 1941, thinking about the pancakes that awaited him, when the distinct drone of aircraft flying low caught his attention. He looked up to see Japanese bombers. To his horror he heard the first bomb hit and explode on Ford Island. Thoughts of breakfast vanished as he ran toward his general quarters station.

“Go up to the roof and see if you can help,” he recalled being told. “There were two sailors I didn’t know up there with a .30 caliber machine gun. I asked them what I could do and they said, ‘Get us more ammo.’ ”

Daves carried ammo while the once-clear Hawaiian sky grew black and battleships burned. From his vantage point he could see the battleships Oklahoma and Arizona exploding, bursts of scarlet flame and thick plumes of smoke shooting into the sky. A cacophony of machine gun fire, blasting torpedoes, and the seemingly endless drone of aircraft shattered the once quiet morning.

“My friend George Maybee was on the Arizona,” Daves said, his voice thick with emotion. “We’d gone through radio school together. Sat beside each other every day.” As horrible as that was, worse sights and sounds soon followed.

“All of the sudden we saw a Jap plane on fire, headed right for us,” said Daves. “He was flying so low his wing almost hit the side of the building. As he approached we could see the pilot was dead.” Daves was hit by exploding ammunition from the disabled aircraft. It crashed into the water beneath them.

He didn’t notice his wounds as he hustled to get more ammo for the sailors on the roof. Making his way to the storage shed, he saw another enemy plane coming in low. This one began to strafe the boats that were carrying sailors back to their ships. “The sailors had been on liberty. They were wearing their dress whites,” Daves paused and took a deep breath. “They didn’t stay white very long.”

Burning oil filled the water. “The sailors would fall into the burning oil,” he said. “Some would jump – some didn’t get a chance.”

Daves stayed on the roof until there were no more planes to shoot at. Then he made his way down toward the shore and began pulling injured men from the water. “You never, never forget the smell of burned human flesh,” he said.

Finally Daves noticed the blood pouring from his left hand. He went to sick bay and got it bandaged. From there he was assigned to fire watch in the dry dock area. The worst of the fires were out, but more sailors were needed to extinguish the sparks that shot up as rescuers brought bodies out from the lower decks of a destroyed battleship.

Late that night he finally got a meal – a thick bologna sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate. “I wasn’t hungry,” he said, “but I knew I needed to eat.”

Daves and several other sailors bedded down for the night on the floor of the radio shack. “One little guy – he was an ensign – he cried and shook all night long,” Daves recalled.

Two weeks after the attack he was given a postcard to send to his family back home. They had no idea if he was alive or dead. “When the postmaster got my card he closed the post office and drove out to my parents’ farm,” Daves said. “He held the card out the window of his car and yelled, ‘He’s alive!’ ”

Daves, like most Pearl Harbor survivors, is reluctant to tell his story. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘Pearl Harbor was 65 years ago – get over it!’ ” He paused and shook his head. “What can you say when people are so indifferent?”

Each time Ray Daves shares his memories of Dec. 7, 1941, it costs him. It forces him to revisit a time and a place that has scarred both his body and his soul. He talks about his experience for only one reason. That reason is found in the motto of the Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Association: “Remember Pearl Harbor. Keep America alert. Eternal Vigilance is the price of liberty.”

As he recalled his friend George and others who lost their lives that day, Daves said, “Those are the true heroes.”

He shuffled through his stack of black and white photos, and looked up – his eyes filled with tears. “I’m not a hero,” he said.


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