by Kimberly A. Cook (Twitter@ WarriorTales)
It all started out as a school project. My family was headed on our first vacation to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1974. For a social studies report, I decided to interview my brother-in-law’s Great Uncle John Watson who was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Little did I realize his story would be my first official “war story” to start my military writing career.
I still have the report. Got an A for the resource, documentation and pictures which I took on vacation. But what embedded in my mind after interviewing Uncle Johnny was how grateful he was that I listened to his story. Seemed odd. Why wouldn’t everyone want to hear his story? Here is part of what he told me about being stationed at Pearl Harbor from 1941 to 1948 as a civilian construction electrician working for the Navy.
“I was there to make magnetic minesweepers out of birdboats,” Watson said. “That was supposed to be my first day off in 13 weeks. I was laying in bed.”
Lonnie says, “Hey, there’s a lot of firing going on, sounds like the big guns.”
“We turned on the radio and the first thing we heard ‘All workmen return to Pearl Harbor immediately, Japs are firing on us.’ Half an hour later I was in Pearl Harbor and went through the main gate when the second wave of Japs were comin through Pearl over from the air field. I don’t think they ever caught up with me though.”
“Still they had Marines at the gate,” he said. “We went through the gate a runnin with these Marines yellin, ‘Hurry up, Hurry Up, the planes are comin.’ There they was standin out there tellin us! We had the heavy cruiser San Francisco in the repair basin over there with just enough power aboard for lights. You couldn’t even fire her guns when it started.”
“I was gettin juice on board one of the battle wagons and Ben Cecil got juice on board her. When I got down there maybe an hour later she was firing her guns. She didn’t have any anti-aircraft yet but her one point pom poms were on the dock ready to go on and the rigger swung them on board and they welded them to the deck and were firing within 20 minutes.”
“Manual firing them. I’ll admit there were no stops on them and she practically cut one stack off following them planes around. We were firing right towards Honolulu. I had a lot up in the valley I was ready to build a new house on a 16-inch shell took that lot off the hillside, we found fragments of it. Like I told ya, we fired 16-inch guns at airplanes.”
The San Francisco wasn’t touched and Uncle Johnny proceeded to get power on board the Pennsylvania so she could fire. He saw the Helena take a torpedo in the engine room after it didn’t hit the Ogalala, but turned it upside down and she was full of mines. “Not a one of them went off,” he said. “We had a lot of that kind of thing going on.”
“I had a rating of non-active base so anytime an air raid siren blew my station was the sight tower, I could see everything that happened in the harbor. You could look across the bay and look at them 11 battleships lined up along Ford Island and fire go’in down all over. The old California was over there firing 5-inch 50 broadsides at the planes and she fired them broadsides right up to the time that the water was coming into the casings, she was sinking all the time. She was the one that put the hole right through the stack of the powerhouse.” (See National Archive Collection photo)
Uncle Johnny stayed on station for 39 hours after the bombing before getting released to go rest. They drove blackout and followed the curb until they hit another car head on doing the same thing. The Marines told him to move on since his car could still run. Then the next soldier told them to park it. They walked two miles home. When he got to his place he found Naval housing families in his apartment, evacuated from base housing.
“Boy that was a wild night, nobody knew what to do or who was giving orders, it was the man with the gun you listened to.”
That is just part of the story. To learn more about the new Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and stories from Pearl Harbor, visit http://www.nps.gov/valr/index.htm and http://www.youtube.com/user/WWIIValorNPS
Real history is best learned from those who were there; Uncle Johnny taught me that lesson.