70 years later, Pearl Harbor survivor tells of attack

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On Wednesday, 89-year-old William Muehleib will visit the place where 70 years ago the sound of Japanese bombs exploding awoke him.

He is one of about 120 survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — which killed 2,400 Americans, sunk 12 ships and destroyed 188 aircraft — who have returned to the Hawaiian island of Oahu for its 70th anniversary.


There is no exact figure on living survivors, but the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn. has 2,700 registered members, said Muehleib, the group’s president.

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The association estimates that there are between 7,000 and 8,000 who are still living, he said.

As an 18-year-old, Muehleib was sent to Hawaii’s Hickam Field, adjacent to Pearl Harbor, as a member of the Army Air Corps to begin aircraft mechanics school.

In November 1941, he and 250 other soldiers were told that instead of classes, they would be forming a ground force battalion and be on 24-hour patrol at the airfield.

But on Dec. 5, the men were told they would no longer be on patrol and instead would be going back to school.


Two days later, while sleeping under tents, he and his fellow soldiers were awakened by the sounds of airplanes and explosions.

“I could see underneath the tent flaps Japanese planes dropping bombs,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I couldn’t believe it was happening.”

After the initial shock, the soldiers fired with their personal weapons as they awaited trucks to take them to their duty stations, Muehleib said.

When the trucks came, they piled in and rode over the runways as bombs exploded around them and bullets from Japanese aircraft rained down.

They eventually arrived at their gun stations and fought back.

In the weeks following the attack, there were moments of joy, such as when he came across a friend who had survived; and others of extreme sadness, when he heard of friends who perished, Muehleib said.

Today, returning to the site of the attacks can be difficult, but also heartening.

“It’s touching. You get choked up sometimes,” he said. “It brings into focus the experience you had that day.”


Many of the survivors come to recall the moment of the attack with one another, not to seek acknowledgment of their efforts. “It is something that happened to us; it was a bonding experience,” he said. “We aren’t looking for accolades or special recognition.”

To many, each anniversary takes on greater importance, as the window to honor those who survived is rapidly closing. Many survivors, who are now in their 80s and 90s, do not worry about being forgotten, Muehleib said.

With the substantial investment the federal government has made in commemorating the attacks, including a sprawling new $56-million Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, what happened on Dec. 7, 1941, will not be forgotten.

“We have no fear of it slowly sliding into oblivion,” he said.


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--Stephen Ceasar