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Witnesses to History : Pearl Harbor Survivors Recall Day of Infamy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Unlike most Americans, Miles Leach did not get the news about the attack on Pearl Harbor from the radio, or the newspapers, or from the excited shouts of neighbors.

Leach got the news directly, from a Japanese machine gun.

“I was at Ewa Marine Air Base, near Pearl Harbor, and I was heading for the showers, naked with a towel around my waist, getting ready to go on liberty,” the 80-year-old ex-Marine from Santa Ana remembers. “All of a sudden these planes started coming over, firing their guns. I looked out at the flight line, and I saw that our planes were on fire. Then this fellow came running into the barracks and hollered, ‘We’re at war!’

“Then somebody turned on a radio and you know what they were playing? They were playing a song called ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.’ Isn’t that something?”

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A lot of stories like that were being told when a dozen Pearl Harbor survivors gathered this week at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Long Beach for a ceremony marking the 52nd anniversary of the attack that changed America and the world. They were stories of quiet courage and aching sorrow and even a little humor, told by men who were witnesses to history on Dec. 7, 1941.

Most Americans today are not old enough to remember firsthand the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, by naval air forces of the Empire of Japan. About 2,400 U.S. servicemen died in the attack, and 1,700 were wounded. Eight U.S. battleships were sunk or badly damaged, as were a dozen smaller ships. Scores of U.S. planes were destroyed on the ground.

The attack--and the lack of military preparedness that it exposed--shocked Americans as perhaps no other single military action has. It established in the American psyche a fear of surprise attack and a need for constant readiness that persisted long after World War II ended, and may have contributed greatly to the fears and tensions and tremendous military spending of the Cold War era.

Although few people at the time doubted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prediction that Dec. 7, 1941, was “a date that will live in infamy,” a half-century later it is for many Americans an increasingly obscure date, a dimly recalled fact from high school history class or old war movies on late-night TV.

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But for the men who were there, and for millions of other Americans who would be affected by the war that followed, Pearl Harbor was the great turning point in their lives. They remember it with clarity, as if it had happened only yesterday.

“I was at Schofield Barracks, in the 21st Infantry, and I was eating breakfast,” recalled Robert Kelly, 73, of Cypress. “We all heard this plane go into a dive, but we just thought it was our own. Then we heard a boom and we thought, ‘Uh oh, he crashed.’ Then we heard another boom and somebody yelled out, ‘Hey, they’re bombing Wheeler Field.’ Needless to say, we missed breakfast.”

Vincent Scharfen, 76, of Long Beach told a story that highlights a familiar theme among Pearl Harbor veterans--the feeling that the nation was “caught with our pants down.”

“I was a gunner’s mate second on the (battleship) USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry-dock getting its bottom scraped,” said Scharfen, a retired cabinetmaker. He added, chuckling, “And to tell you the truth, when the attack started I was in the head"--that’s Navy lingo for bathroom--"so they really did catch me with my pants down. But it didn’t take me long to get ‘em up. I saw the planes, saw the red spots on them, and I knew they were Japanese. So I ran to my battle station. We were the only U.S. Navy ship that ever fought a battle from dry land, because we were in dry dock, see?”

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Scharfen chuckled again, and then his face grew serious.

“We took one bomb hit that penetrated to the third deck and exploded,” he said. “We had more than 30 killed.”

Al Levkus, 70, of Long Beach, recalled how ill-prepared many units were for a shooting war.

“Everybody was running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” recalled Levkus, who was at a replacement depot at Schofield Barracks. “We wanted to fight back, so we broke into the ammo lockers and set up some .50-calibers (machine guns) on the quadrangle. But the ammunition was too old. It was from World War I, and it wouldn’t fire. We only got a couple of shots off.”

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“Believe it or not, it was my birthday, I had just turned 23 years old,” said Pete Janovich, a retired barber shop owner from Norwalk. “I was on the (battleship) USS Tennessee, waiting to go ashore, when all of a sudden this plane came over between the (battleship) West Virginia and us. We got strafed. He just missed me. We took two bombs that killed 18 of us. Later they sent me out on a motor launch to look for survivors. I found one survivor out in the water there, and two dead men. Some birthday.”

None of the Pearl Harbor survivors openly expressed any continuing animosity toward the Japanese--although more than one pointed out that they don’t drive Japanese-made cars. But to a man, they all agreed with the sentiments of retired Navy Cmdr. Louis Nockold, who was aboard the light cruiser USS Honolulu at Pearl Harbor and who gave the keynote address at the Pearl Harbor “Day of Remembrance” ceremony.

“Let us all remember Pearl Harbor, and above all let us help keep America alert,” Nockold, 71, of Newport Beach, said. “Let us never again allow ourselves to become victims like we were 52 years ago.”


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