Accounts from those at Pearl Harbor retold
Editor’s note: Today’s commentary, originally published by Columnist Herb Weiss in the 2006 issue of Senior Digest and later republished in his book, Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, is dedicated to Leo Lebrun, Carl Otto and Eugene (all now deceased) who shared their first-hand accounts of being at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
With the 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor fast approaching [in 2006], aging military veterans have planned a reunion, which may ultimately be the “last hurrah” to take place in Honolulu, Hawaii in December to commemorate Japan’s December 7, 1941 surprise attack and the start of World War II.
According to the Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Project, in 1941 the youngest Pearl Harbor survivors were only in their teens and early twenties. Now their ages are approaching the early to mid-80s and frailties associated with advanced age will make this year’s 65th anniversary gathering and Survivors Summit the last official gathering.
On December 7, 1941, the surprise attack began at 7.55 a.m. For almost two hours, the Japanese aerial attack sunk or damaged twenty-one American ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. American aircraft losses totaled 188 destroyed and 159 damaged on that unforgettable day. A total of 2,403 military personnel lost their lives, including 68 civilians, with the number of wounded reaching 1,178. The Japanese would lose only 29 planes – less than 10 percent of their attacking force.
Dr. Gary Hylander, a professor at Stonehill College says, “With 30,000 World War II veterans dying each month, it’s time to capture their stories.” To commemorate and honor “The Day that Lives in Infamy” this writer talks with three local veterans who share their eye witness accounts of the Japanese attack and reflect Pearl Harbor, 65 years ago this month.
At Schofield Barracks
At age 84, Lincoln resident Leo Lebrun remembers Pearl Harbor just like it was yesterday afternoon. In 1941 unemployment would force this 19-year-old to enlist at a United States Army recruiting office located at the main post office in the City of Woonsocket.
After basic training at Fort Slokum, the largest recruiting depot east of the Mississippi River during World War II, a five-day train trip would deliver Lebrun to San Francisco. From there, the private would be stationed in Hawaii at Schofield Barracks, assigned to C Battery, part of the 8th Field Artillery Hawaiian Division. (Japanese planes would fly over Schofield Barracks on their way to bomb Wheeler Field and Pearl Harbor.)
Traveling 15 miles from the Docks, Lebrun arrived at Schofield Barracks complex, six months before the Pearl Harbor attack. “It was really a beautiful place, just like a college campus,” remembers LeBrun.
On his way to mass on held in a theater at Schofield Barracks, that December 7, 1941 Private Lebrun saw low flying aircraft flying over the building. “We thought those planes were ours because it was not unusual to see planes flying overhead,” he says. “Strafing and dropping bombs” forced the soldier to run for safety inside the theater. By seeing the “red zeros” painted on the planes “we knew that they were Japanese.”
After the attack, Lebrun went outside to help the wounded and found his best friend, 19-year-old George Roberts of Los Angeles, killed by strafing. “We were shocked, scared, and mad, but we were trained to handle it,” he said. It took over two weeks for the military to notify LeBrun’s parents that he was not wounded in the attack.
According to Lebrun, the planes were flying so close to the buildings that some of his friends actually saw the faces of the pilots. If the Japanese planes came back in a second wave, he and the others who took shelter in the theater were ready. “We went to a supply room and grabbed 50 caliber machine guns. It was really difficult to hit [or damage a plane] with a 45 pistol,” he recalls.
After the sneak attack, Lebrun’s artillery unit was assigned to defend the Punch Bowl, a site over looking Pearl Harbor. In this position, large 155 howitzers would protect the Island from invading troops. “The first night we shot at anything that moved. We killed a few mongooses.” He noted that even a few days later his unit could still see heavy black smoke and fire from the damaged ships in the harbor, which were almost two miles away.
Days after the attack soldiers from every outfit would travel to Akins Field and Heeler Field “to pick up plane pieces and clean up those areas,” Lebrun added.
Lebrun would later participate in five major campaigns against the Japanese, earning five battle stars. Once discharged as a Corporal in August 1945, he would marry Irene Froment, from Woonsocket. The couple recently celebrated 61 years of marriage. The Pearl would work as a meat cutter and for the next 39 years was employed by Star Market made this his career.
Serving on the USS Bagley
Eighty-four-year-old Carl Otto, a former police officer, now lives at Attleboro-based Christopher Heights, an assisted living facility, and reflects on Pearl Harbor. He remembers “seeing Japanese torpedo planes from the stern of the USS Bagley, fire torpedo’s at his ship and others at Pearl Harbor.”
Fresh out of boot camp in Newport, Rhode Island, Seaman Second Class Otto chose to be assigned to the USS Bagley rather than being placed on a larger vessels such as an aircraft carrier or battleship. A five-day trip on a troop train would get the young sailor to the West Coast. Ultimately, leaving Long Beach, California, the destroyer, manned by 150 sailors set course for Pearl Harbor, the ship’s home port.
The USS Bagley was moored at the Navy Yard in Pearl Harbor for repairs when the Japanese attack began. That early morning, Otto, working as a mess cook, finished his duties and went to the rear of the ship to eat a plain egg sandwich and drink coffee, sitting on the gun mount by his friends. “At first we thought an approaching plane was Chinese. We just didn’t recognize the Rising Sun emblem,” he said.
“We actually saw the pilot waving to us with his plane only being about 100 feet away from our ship,” Otto noted, saying that “it shot a fish [torpedo] at us.” A loud explosion a few minutes later confirmed to Otto that he indeed saw the torpedo that he believes hit the battle ship, the USS Tennessee.
General quarters called the sailors to their battle stations. Otto, serving as a powder man, quickly primed the five-inch 38 caliber gun with powder before the projectile was placed in it before firing. Otto recalls that over 300 rounds of ammunition were fired from the ship’s four gun batteries that morning.
“The battle went by so fast,” remembers Otto, stressing that his gunnery training allowed him to go into “automatic” mode” when preparing the power charges at his gun battery. That day he clearly remembers looking toward battleship row and seeing the heavy smoke, intense fire and seeing the oil drenched water, some spots on fire.
During the aerial battle, “we were credited with downing the first Japanese plane that day,” Otto proudly notes. Crew members armed with 50 caliber machine guns also were credited with destroying the second and third plane that approached the USS Bagley. Only four sailors were “nicked” by shrapnel and the ship received no direct hits. (The ship would later be credited with downing five torpedo planes, one dive-bomber and a high attitude bomber).
According to Otto, the USS Bagley would leave the dock behind the USS Nevada and he watched that battle ship run aground on the soft mud bottom of the harbor. If the battleship would have sunk at the entrance of the harbor “it would have made sitting targets of all the other ships [inside the harbor],” he said. Ultimately, the USS Bagley would form a battle line with Destroyers to stop any possible invasion.
Before being discharged from the Navy, Otto would participate in eight major battles in the South Pacific. Returning to North Attleboro, he would marry Pauline Dailey and during their time together, Otto and his late wife would raise five children.
From the rooftop of Naval Hospital
Eighty-seven year old Eugene Marchand credits appendicitis with keeping him off the USS Cassin, which was in dry dock at the Navy Yard the day of Pearl Harbor. During the Japanese attack, bombs and fire caused the 1,500-ton destroyer to roll off the blocks and capsize against the Destroyer, USS Downes, which was alongside, severely damaging both ships.
Recuperating from surgery, twenty-one year old Marchand watched the attack from the third floor rooftop of the Naval Hospital. At first the young sailor thought the flying aircraft were part of a “sham battle” between the Army and Navy. Ultimately seeing the ”big red fire ball” emblems on the low flying planes and watching fire and smoke caused by dropped bombs and strafing brought home the point that the battle was not staged, but the real thing.
“The Japanese planes flew so close to us we could have hit the planes with rifle fire,” Marchand claims. Nurses and fellow patients urged him to return back inside by warning him to watch out for the deadly shrapnel. He noted that no bombs were dropped on this hospital.
While on roof watching the battle, the first class carpenter Marchand claims to have seen the first torpedo to hit Fort Island, a nearby amphibious base. After the attack he was reassigned to the USS Whitney, a destroyer tender.
Being discharged from service after fighting in two South Pacific Battles, Marchand would marry Elaine Degina, from North Attleboro and raise six children. He was employed by local manufacturing companies, ultimately working for the City and retiring as a truck driver for the highway department.
Herb Weiss, LRI’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.