News Column

Pearl Harbor Attack, 70 Years Ago, Still Fresh In the Memories of Old Sailors

Dec 7, 2011

Bruce Newman

From Dec. 7, 1941 until long after VJ Day and the end of World War II, Americans referred to the Japanese strike against Pearl Harbor as a "sneak attack." In his declaration of war before a joint session of Congress the next day, President Franklin Roosevelt captured the nation's shock and fury, promising it would be "a date which will live in infamy."

But on this 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, with old war wounds healed and racial sensitivities heightened, the phrase used more often to describe that day is "surprise attack." For most Americans, the "infamy" of Dec. 7, 1941 has receded since Sept. 11, 2001.

The survivors of those doomed ships -- many from the Bay Area -- are mostly hard of hearing now, but the buzz and the boom of the bombs from that day still ring in the ears of John Tait of Concord, Ed Silveira of Hayward and Dempson Arellano of Antioch. Gordon Van Hauser, who lived in San Carlos until his death in 2008, often spoke of his service not in terms of fighting for his own life, but for the life of his country.

Readying for war

The Great Depression had dragged on for more than a decade by the time Tait went to the Navy's Oakland recruiting office in 1940 and enlisted. "Times were hard, and civilian life was not working for me," Tait says, sitting at his kitchen table in Concord, where he and his wife, Marge, settled after his 22 years in the Navy ended. The war in Europe had already

begun, and an appetite for more of it was in the air every time Tait's father switched on his ham radio.

"We didn't think they were good sailors, or that they had good ships," said Tait, now 91 beetling his busy white eyebrows as he talked about the Japanese. "Well, they turned out to be good seamen with good ships." During his final three years in the Navy, Tait was posted in Japan, where he and Marge taught English to Japanese self-defense forces. His students were often startled to learn where he had been on the first day of the war.

Aboard the USS Arizona

Today the ghost ship USS Arizona sits at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the 1,102 sailors who perished seven decades ago entombed there for all time. On the evening of Dec. 6, 1941, a young Marine, Gordon Van Hauser took a liberty boat from his barracks to the Arizona, to have dinner with two friends from boot camp.

After chow Van Hauser and his buddies joined other sailors on the ship's fantail to watch a movie, which Van Hauser disliked so much he took a boat back to the base that night.

A lazy Sunday morning

Van Hauser was about to go on duty the next day, Dec. 7, when low-flying Japanese torpedo bombers -- headed for Battleship Row and the Arizona -- appeared out of a clear Hawaiian sky, rattling the Marines' rooftops and strafing the parade ground. "I took my rifle, which was a 1903 model Springfield, and we were firing .30-caliber ammunition...as the Japanese torpedo bombers came in," Van Hauser said in a video his son recorded before his death. Firing single-shot, bolt-action rifles scarcely better than muskets, he and about 800 other Marines brought down two or three Japanese zeroes, Van Hauser recalled, and watched them burst into flames.

First licks

Even as an 86-pound boy growing up in Hayward, Silveira could raise a 100-pound feed sack over his head. He recalls

this with overweening pride at 89, inviting anyone who questions his strength to punch him in the stomach. "I was a rowdy kid, no question," Silveira says. "I fought at the drop of a hat. Size meant nothing to me. It's the one who gets in the first hit."

Aboard the USS West Virginia

Dempson Arellano had just suggested to his friend Gleason that they visit their girlfriends in Honolulu, when somebody burst through the door and shouted, "The Japanese hit!" Arellano had the jumper he wore on liberty pulled halfway over his head when he felt the battleship shake violently. "I finally got my head out of the blouse and said, 'What the hell was that?'"

Just then, a second torpedo struck the ship, peeling open a hole in the hull. As brown water came rushing down the passageway, Arellano said, "Gleason, let's get the hell out of here." When they reached the deck, a Japanese plane was spraying the deck with machine gun fire. "We had just brought potatoes aboard and there was a stack about 8 or 10 feet tall," says Arellano, who now lives at the Antioch Care Home, "so we ducked behind that and the Japanese plane strafed all those potatoes."

Aboard the USS San Francisco

For three months, Ed Silveira did nothing but peel potatoes. "On Dec. 7, I was mess cooking on the second deck. On Saturdays and Sundays, you rack out, you don't do nothing. At about five minutes to 8, I'm looking up and seeing all these airplanes. I thought they were our people practicing. They were just peppering the bay. And I was thinking, 'Gee, what a good mock battle this is!' About that time, I saw a plane hit the West Virginia with a torpedo bomb, and I realize this ain't no drill."

Aboard the USS Arizona

At 8:06 a.m. -- 12 hours after Van Hauser made the fateful choice not to stay with his friends on the ship -- they were dead. A 1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb flew into the Arizona's ammunition magazine, igniting a fire so hellish it would burn for two days.

Aboard the USS West Virginia

Arellano had just started to heave himself up onto his assigned gun turret when another seaman stepped on top of his head. "It seemed like he was in a hurry to get out of there," Arellano recalls. The sailor had just seen a bomb whistle past him, drop through the turret, and descend into the depths of the ship. Arellano found out a year later that the bomb had landed in the powder handling room, but failed to explode.

The Japanese had built a limited number of armor-piercing bombs, and the West Virginia took two of them. One disemboweled Captain Mervyn S. Bennion. "He didn't die right away," Arellano says, his eyes glistening. "He managed to man the loudspeaker and he said, 'All hands, abandon ship. God bless you.'"

The West Virginia was sinking. But to prevent it from rolling over on its side as the Oklahoma had done just a few berths away, a damage control team dived into the oily water -- which was on fire -- and blew the ballast tanks, causing the ship to right itself before settling to the bottom. "The ship was sinking right under me," says Arellano, who scrambled off the ship just as the second wave of Japanese bombers arrived with their deadly cargo.

Aboard the USS Tennessee

Almost as soon as he stepped onto the Tennessee, Arellano was handed a fire hose and ordered to fight a major fire on the fantail. He attacked the the fire until his breathing apparatus ran out of oxygen and he passed out. "The next thing I knew, I was looking up at the sky up on deck," he says.

The Arizona lay in front of him. "Even on the Tennessee, there were guys with flash burns from when the Arizona blew up," he says. "It actually cooked their eyeballs. Some of them were running blind on the deck of the Tennessee. Their flesh was hanging down off their face, and their eyeballs were burned out. A lot of them just ran a few feet and collapsed. That's what I remember more clearly than anything."

Aboard the USS St. Louis

By 9:30 a.m., Tait heard the command to cast off lines. The St. Louis was going to make a desperate escape through the south channel, where the sinking USS Nevada might block other ships from getting out.

The speed limit through the channel was 5 knots. "By the time we got to the mouth of the channel, we were doing 28 knots," Tait says. The ship's anti-aircraft guns would bring down three planes, but the light cruiser's troubles weren't over as it neared open waters.

"There was a two-man submarine waiting for us," Tait says. "They fired two torpedoes at us, but the torpedoes hit a reef and exploded." which led to the ship being dubbed the "Lucky Lou." Tait's crew spent Christmas at Pearl that year, and on the menu for the ship's dinner, Capt. George Rood congratulated his men.

"The good ship has had her first test...and came through with flying colors," he wrote. "Every officer and man took his station at once and the whole ship functioned as smoothly as though it were a drill. We...know now what we can do, and nothing can bother us in the future."

Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004.

Local remembrances

Pearl Harbor survivors will be honored at two events in the area on Dec. 7. At the USS Hornet Museum (707 W. Hornet Ave., Alameda) Ed Silveira will share his memories of that day as a crewman on the USS San Francisco. The ceremony begins at 1 p.m., and will conclude with chaplain John Berger performing a service of remembrance. At Moffett Field in Mountain View, two survivors of the attack will be honored guests at the Moffett Museum's art exhibit of Hangar 1 paintings, beginning at 2 p.m.

Deadliest ever

The United States suffered 2,459 casualties during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. More than 50 million people are believed to have perished during World War II, the deadliest conflict in human history.



Source: (c)2011 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)