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CHARLESTON, S.C.—In 1923 Army Col. Billy Mitchell predicted Japanese expansion would one day lead the ambitious nation to attack the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor—at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday.
Mitchell, who died in 1936 at age 56, made his bold prediction 17 years before the United States moved its Pacific fleet headquarters from San Pedro, Calif., to Pearl Harbor in 1940. He was so convinced of his own theory he persuaded a family on Niihau Island to cross-plow flat areas so they couldn’t be used as an airfield. It took three men eight years to do it, Hawaii historian Bob Sigall told me.
On Dec. 7, 1941, with frightening accuracy Mitchell’s nightmare scenario came true: Japan used four heavy aircraft carriers, four cruisers, two battleships, 11 destroyers, nine oilers, 35 submarines, and 353 airplanes to kill 2,403 Americans, wound 1,178, and temporarily cripple the U.S. Navy.
Mitchell missed the start time by 25 minutes, but in 1942 President Franklin Roosevelt still promoted him posthumously to major general. In 1946 Congress awarded him a posthumous Medal of Honor.
December marks 73 years since Japan’s treachery jolted the United States out of an anti-war stupor and into World War II. Although 84,168 uniformed American personnel were on Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack, survivors have dwindled to less than 3,000. No one has an exact count, according to Bill Muehleib, the final president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association—which shut down at the end of 2011 because it no longer had enough healthy members to run the organization. Those who are left will mark this year’s anniversary in Charleston, S.C., at the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors national convention.
I recently tracked down some of them to hear their memories of what President Franklin Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.”
Nineteen-year-old Bill Muehleib’s duty station was at Wheeler Field in the central part of Oahu, but in the closing weeks of 1941 he was taking an advanced course in aircraft and engine mechanics at Hickam Field—separated from Pearl Harbor by only a chain-link fence. Personnel had been on full alert from late November until Dec. 6, so Muehleib was among the soldiers working new ground defense battalions to protect sensitive areas with 50-caliber machine guns. “The fact that we’d never fired one made no material difference to them,” said Muehleib, 92, who despite a full head of white hair could pass for two decades younger.
On Dec. 7, Muehleib’s battalion had settled into its tent following a 24-hour shift when soldiers heard explosive noise. They lifted the tent flaps to see Japanese pilots targeting U.S. bomber planes in the Hickam hangers (U.S. fighter planes were at Wheeler Field). Muehleib was close enough to see where the bombs would hit before they reached their target, but too far away to provide defensive fire: “It was like you were watching something that was going on somewhere else.”
After the first attack lasted nearly an hour, Muehleib and his tent mates bolted for their defense position during a break. Japanese pilots spotted them trying to drive across a runway and swooped down to strafe them with gunfire. The men dived headlong into a ditch and heard rounds peppering into the ground around them. No one was hit.
The second attack wave was finished by midmorning, but intense darkness from burning oil blotted out the sun. Rumors were rampant: A third wave is coming. The Japanese poisoned the water. Paratroopers will arrive by night. The confusion and fear were so great that Muehleib said one couldn’t walk anywhere at night because “somebody would start shooting at you.” That evening Americans shot down five of their own planes as they tried to land at Pearl Harbor.
Charles “Jack” Cornelison, 92, can count at least four ways he should have died during the attack. His ship, the USS Nevada, usually tied up next to the USS Arizona after the vessels spent weekdays executing maneuvers on the open sea. Each weekend the crews would throw a gangplank between the ships, intermingle, eat together, and go ashore for the island night life. But the weekend of Dec. 7, the Arizona needed minor maintenance, so a small repair ship was in the outside position on Battleship Row, while the Nevada docked with its bow to the Arizona’s stern—a change that likely saved the Nevada from suffering the Arizona’s fate.
Cornelison, then 19, had arranged to take a boat to the Arizona at 8 a.m. to catch up with a buddy from his Pueblo, Colo., high school who had recently arrived from boot camp. But Cornelison overslept: “I wouldn’t be here if I had been where I was supposed to have been.” He had just dressed and was preparing to go meet his friend when general quarters sounded, signaling every man to duty stations.
Cornelison, a second class petty officer, took his position as a JV talker at the forward repair party, ready to communicate orders from the bridge or damage control. When a torpedo blasted the port bow, Cornelison and his team—protected only by a superstructure that blocked their view—relocated to a secure position under one of the guns on the main deck. Moments later, a bomb destroyed the compartment his team had just vacated. I asked what was going through his mind: “I don’t know how you explain terror,” he said, his voice quivering with emotion. “I still have flashbacks.”
The Nevada was the only battleship to get underway during the attack—prompting cheers from other ships—but doing so only made it a primary target for Japanese bombers. The ship took between six and 10 direct bomb hits, according to the Navy’s after-action report. To get out of the harbor it also had to move past the mortally wounded Arizona, where more than 1 million pounds of gunpowder had exploded next to the Nevada with a concussion so strong it sent toward Cornelison a piece of debris large enough to kill him. He says it’s a miracle it didn’t, but a pipe piece still slammed into his arm.
Intense bombing forced the Nevada to run aground intentionally at Hospital Point, rather than risk sinking in the narrow channel providing access to the harbor. Cornelison was one of two injured sailors who accompanied the Nevada’s dead to the hospital, where a doctor looked at his swollen arm in the hallway and said to return for X-rays. Seeing the carnage around him, Cornelison instead chose to return to his ship.
Cornelison, who rose from enlisted soldier to commissioned officer in 49 months, was later stationed in Japan, learned to speak Japanese, and said he does not hold any bitterness toward the Japanese. He retired as a lieutenant commander but never applied for a Purple Heart: “I didn’t feel it was justified. … There were a lot of casualties I saw at the hospital [who] opted not to do it.”
Across from Battleship Row, near the dry docks, the light cruiser Helena was moored at 1010 Dock Navy Yard with 23-year-old Fred Aldridge aboard. The spot was normally assigned to the battleship Pennsylvania, which was dry-docked for repairs, meaning the Helena received copious unwanted attention when Japanese planes descended on the harbor. “We got about the first shot,” said Aldridge, 96, who has a girlfriend and still lives on his own.
Shortly before 8 a.m. Aldridge presented himself for morning inspection with the rest of the ship’s crew and his 17-year-old brother Elwood, who had just arrived from boot camp. The Aldridge brothers had together spent time ashore the night before—the first time they’d done so since Elwood joined the Helena three weeks prior.
When general quarters sounded, the crew members dispersed for their battle stations; but before Aldridge could even get to his, a torpedo ripped through the ship. The blast took out the first engine room, where Elwood was killed immediately. Aldridge, a first class electrician, saw another torpedo explode into the Nevada as he crawled into his gun turret, but his mind was on his kid brother: “He was a hero.”
Aldridge received treatment and a Purple Heart for a laceration he suffered during the battle. He stayed with the Helena for 19 Pacific engagements and was still aboard when a Japanese destroyer used three torpedoes to sink it during the 1943 battle of Kula Gulf, near the Solomon Islands. Aldridge floated in the water for about four hours before the USS Nicholas rescued him.
Seventeen-year-old Al Bullock was in training to become a military photographer when he arrived at Pearl Harbor days before the attack. He hadn’t even been able to get off of Ford Island—a splotch of land in the middle of the harbor—to visit his brother on the USS St. Louis when a nearby soldier’s declaration interrupted his Sunday morning breakfast: “We are under attack.”
Bullock raced to the photo lab, where he and two others developed the thousands of photos that still preserve the day’s images 73 years later. He watched the attack unfold through pictures, including one that he mistakenly thought showed his brother’s ship destroyed. Bullock could only hear and feel what was going on around him as every bomb shook the small piece of land. “It sounded like they were trying to sink the island,” he told me by phone from his California home.
Bullock, whose stint at Pearl Harbor lasted less than two weeks, went on to become one of the most prolific photographers of the war. He survived myriad close calls and documented the USS Santa Fe’s 85 unscathed major operations, including the battle of Kula Gulf, the deadly attack on the USS Franklin, and the peace treaty signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
As breathtaking as the attack on Pearl Harbor was, it could have been much worse. The three aircraft carriers in the U.S. fleet were all at sea, depriving Japan of a prime motivation for striking. The Japanese also made three critical mistakes: They failed to hit the fuel depot, the submarine base, and the shipyards, allowing the United States to quickly repair many of its vessels. “They probably should have left our ships and hit those three targets,” historian Bob Sigall said. “The ships would be operating fine, but they would have had to relocate to the West Coast as a permanent base.”
Except for the Arizona, Oklahoma, and Utah, every ship damaged at Pearl Harbor would sail again. Every Japanese ship used in the attack was sunk by the end of the war.
Did you know?
Barely 1 million of the 16 million who served during World War II are alive today. Roughly 555 World War II vets die each day—one every three minutes—according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
—Pearl Harbor survivor Charles Gregoire contributed to this story