Northwest Navigator: News and Information from Navy Region Northwest in Washington State's Puget Sound, including Bremerton, Kitsap County, Oak Harbor, and Everett

Pearl Harbor survivors still remember, 64 years later

Photo by Tony Popp
Present day heroes with the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association Cascade Chapter 5 gather this past August at their annual picnic in La Conner, Wash. Seen are, front, from left, Del Cummings, Anthony Nady, Cecil Calavan, Harold Shimer and Harold Johnson; (back) Glenn Lane, James Stansell, Donald Bolton, Earnest Vance, Jerry Wachsmuth, Bill Martin and Jim Vyskocil.

“On December 7th, 1941, I relieved the watch at 0730, a quiet, warm Sunday morning,” recalled retired Lt. Cmdr. James Vyskocil.

He and eight others from the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association Cascade Chapter 5 have volunteered to share their stories with Northwest Navigator readers of that horrific day when the Imperial Japanese navy launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

As a result, the U.S. entered WWII the next day. The U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet was devastated Dec. 7 with 2,395 Navy, Marine Corps, Army and civilians killed; and another 1,178 wounded. Twenty-one ships were either sunk or damaged and 323 aircraft destroyed or damaged.

To remember their fallen shipmates, the Pearl Harbor survivors will hold a ceremony with Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11 on the Seaplane Base Dec. 7 at 9 a.m. The unit adopted the survivors eight years ago, hosting their annual observance since then.

Here are their condensed personal accounts:

James Vyskocil, 84, was a Signalman 3rd class in the Navy Yard signal tower. He was 20-years old. “Looking out over the Navy Yard, all was quiet. We were preparing to make Sunday Colors with prep four on our flag hoist, to be executed at 0800. But at five minutes to eight, dive-bombers hit the runways at Ford Island - one, two, three - then all hell broke loose. Japanese torpedo planes flying below the tower made runs on the ships tied up along Ford Island. It seemed to go on for hours. When the Nevada got under way and started for the channel, she came abreast of the 1010 dock, and Japanese dive-bombers hit her on the fo’c’sle near the anchors. You could see bodies blown up as high as the tower.”

James Stansell, 82, President of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association Cascade Chapter 5, was a Seaman 2nd Class aboard the destroyer USS Hull. He was 18."I was getting ready to go to church that morning when the attack came. We were alongside USS Dobbins (a destroyer tender) as our fire room was getting overhauled and our portholes removed. All our power and other necessities came from the Dobbins. Shortly after the attack, we had one near miss bomb that damaged our rudder. After our fire rooms were reassembled, we were able to get under way. We were at the north end of Ford Island, airstrip, and could see the unbelievable carnage that was being left by the attacking Japanese planes. We could see the terrible explosions in the Navy yard and dry docks, and all the time we were being strafed by planes. We were fortunate that we had no casualties.”

Glenn Lane, 87, was a Radioman 3rd Class aboard the battleship USS Arizona. He was 23."At the sound of the explosions, I went topside on the forecastle to investigate. I recognized the plane as Japanese. I shouted a warning to lookouts on the signal bridge and went below to the main deck to warn my shipmates of the attack. I went aft to the aviation workshop to waken four late sleepers. The ship was hit amidships and forward by several bombs, and was afire forward. The forward magazine exploded and blew several men off the ship, including me. I swam in oil-covered water to a whale boat moored near the USS Nevada and boarded her to help man a five-inch secondary gun.”

Anthony Nady, 86, was a Machinist’s Mate 1st Class on the battleship USS Nevada. He was 22."I was sleeping below decks in the main air compressor room because it was cooler while in Hawaii. The first time I noticed something different was a loud noise like an explosion. I heard, ‘The Japs are attacking us!’ I immediately left to go to my battle station, which was in the forward air compressor room, located forward of number one turret on the fifth deck. About 15 minutes later, a Japanese aerial torpedo hit the ship below the water line, between number one and number two main battery gun turrets, with force enough to knock me to the deck. The Nevada got underway, but was ordered grounded so it would not block the channel to the sea as we were taking on water and slowy sinking. At around 12:30 p.m. we were ordered to secure everything off and abandon our station. When we climbed up the ladder to the third deck, I was shocked to see the height of the water which was 18 inches above the deck and up to my knees.”

Harold Shimer, 86, was a Storekeeper 3rd class aboard the light cruiser USS Helena. He was 20. “We awoke as a torpedo tore into the aft engine room. The Helena lost 23 that morning, but being a new ship with the latest anti-air-rapid-fire 38, and four placements of one point one guns, we returned fire immediately and were credited with saving the USS Pennsylvania, flag ship of the fleet in dry dock just forward of us at pier 1010.”

Cecil Calavan, 81, was a Seaman 2nd class aboard the battleship USS Utah. He was 17. “After reveille on the morning of December 7, I stored my cot and bedding in the third division compartment. I was to shave the fuzz off my face or I would not be allowed to go back to shore. I went to my locker, got my Schick injector razor and proceeded to the head at the stern of the ship on the main deck. I was about half way through shaving when the ship suddenly shuddered as if we had been rammed. About a minute later, there was a tremendous explosion aboard the ship that rocked me nearly off my feet. I could see water rising on the deck I was standing on. It was obvious going to my battle station would be impossible as the ship had started listing immediately. As I came out of the hatch on the starboard quarterdeck, I could see Japanese planes strafing the ship, causing confusion and panic. I learned later that the torpedo I had watched strike the ship had entered the compartment where my division lived. Had I not been shaving at the time, I would have undoubtedly been killed like several young men I had been planning liberty with.”

Donald Bolton, 84, was a Seaman 2nd class aboard the destroyer USS Selfridge. He was 17. “The Japanese woke us up early in the morning, close to 8 a.m. We had just come in from sea the night before; so we had no food or fuel on board and could not get out of the harbor until 10 a.m. The whaleboat coxswain was on shore. I drove the boat to the dock at Mary’s Landing, picking up personnel who had been on liberty, returning them to their ships. The battleships were burning, exploding. Everyone was trying to get back to their ships. The Japanese were flying around overhead. Back aboard the ship, we started dressing the ship for action, taking all the wood railings, canvas and all unnecessary equipment on the deck and throwing it overboard including our movie projector. Everything that could burn or make shrapnel to get all over you was thrown off. We expected the whole Japanese fleet to be coming in.”

Harold Johnson, 81, was a Seaman 2nd class aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma. He was 17. “I was up early and had liberty that day to meet this girl. I was up about 0500/0600. My whites were laid out on my bunk ready for liberty. I was shining my shoes when all of a sudden the alarm went off. The announcement came that this is the real thing. I just got moving when the first torpedo hit, and it felt like the ship jumped out of the water. I got into the handling room, when four other torpedoes hit and she started going over pretty fast. The order came to abandon ship. I decided to swim for it; oil was on the water 6 or 7 inches thick. We couldn’t tell who was next to you because we were all covered with oil. I just couldn’t believe what was going on, and it was such a shock.”

Jerry Wachsmuth, 84, was a Marine Corps corporal aboard the battleship USS Pennsylvania. He was 20. “On that Sunday morning, I was in the showers. I could hear some disturbing noises coming through the portholes, but did not know what they were. Suddenly a sailor came to the hatchway and shouted, ‘The Japs are in the harbor.’ I immediately grabbed my towel and headed aft toward our compartment, quickly pulling clothing out of my locker and ran to my battle station. This was number eight casemate, where the number eight, 5-inch, 51-caliber broadside gun was located. The crew and I decided that we could do no good where we were. We went up onto the boat deck, one deck above, where the 5-inch 25-caliber anti-aircraft guns were located. Here we carried ammunition from the ammo hoists to the guns. There was unbelievable hell going on no matter what direction you would look. I think that the saving thing is at the moment this is happening, we are busy with the tasks at hand and that fear has to be brushed aside. The will to overcome and survive comes to the top.”

The following were not able to send their stories, but are pictured. Earnest Vance, 84, served aboard the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco as a Seaman 1st class. He was 19. Del Cummings, 88, served on the Coast Guard cutter Tauey in the carpenter division. He was 24 at the time. Bill Martin, 86, was a Hospital Corpsman 1st class on the battleship USS Tennessee.

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