Nearly 75 years ago, our country’s destiny was forever changed when Japan attacked the U.S. Navy fleet based at Pearl Harbor. Robert Randall Ryder recalls memories shared by some of the eyewitnesses who lived to tell about it.
On Dec. 7, 1941, our nation’s destiny was forever changed when the Japanese attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, thrusting our country into World War II.
Nationwide, fewer than 2,500 of the about 60,000 Pearl Harbor veterans remain. Several local veterans witnessed the devastating air raid and have, through the years, shared their experiences and some lessons learned from Pearl Harbor. These lessons are just as relevant today as they were 75 years ago.
“Always alert” is the message the late Bill Foster, a Rockford resident, conveyed over and over again, as he made it his mission to educate young students at local schools about the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. After leaving the Navy, Foster spent much of the rest of his life educating the public about the importance of military vigilance to make sure a similar attack would never again catch the U.S. off guard.
At age 21, Foster was a sailor stationed aboard the destroyer USS Selfridge, which was moored at Pearl Harbor when the air raid took place.
“The attack only took two hours, but we called it ‘two hours that changed the world,’ which of course it did,” said Foster. “But it was also the event that propelled the United States into World War II.”
Foster was the engineer on board a small motor launch (boat) that was picking up supplies for his ship, when the Japanese planes started to attack shortly before 7 a.m. He was right in the middle of Pearl Harbor as the bombs began to fall. Some of the Japanese planes were so low they seemed to skim just above the water.
“You could see the pilot smiling and even see his gold teeth! It was something you never dreamed of,” he said.
Foster made it back to his ship, which was docked alongside several other destroyers, and immediately began waking up crew members, who were sleeping late that Sunday morning.
“They didn’t believe me,” said Foster. “They thought it was some kind of drill until the general quarters alarm went off.”
Soon crew members headed for their battle stations. Since the ship was low on fuel, Foster and others hooked up fuel lines so they could get underway.
By 11:30 a.m., the Selfridge headed out to sea, passing wreckage strewn throughout the harbor.
“The ships were still afire, still ablaze. The bay was filled with oil; there were men swimming in it. There were boats trying to pick them up,” recalled Foster.
Despite the carnage – more than 2,000 American lives were lost that day – Foster didn’t feel afraid during the attack.
“You had a station,” he recalled. “You had a job to do. You didn’t give much thought to being scared. It was afterwards you were scared, thinking about what could have happened.”
Foster continued his service in the Navy until 1950 and eventually became president of the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. He was forever active spreading the organization’s motto of “Remember Pearl Harbor and Keep America Alert.”
He felt lucky to have survived the attack but wondered how our military could be caught so off guard at one of its largest military installations.
“How could this happen?” Foster asked. “How could our government not know this was going to happen? What happened?”
Foster died in 2009 at age 88.
The late Vern Lundstrom, a Navy veteran born and raised in Rockford, was aboard the battleship USS Nevada on Dec. 7, 1941.
“We were just finishing up breakfast when somebody came running in and said, ‘go to your battle stations, we’re being attacked!’” he recalls.
Lundstrom was a 23-year-old sailor assigned to mess cook duty. The Nevada was one of eight battleships in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 and therefore a central target. Lundstrom was in the Chief Petty Officer’s quarters, just below the main deck, when the attack started.
“I had my fingers crossed,” Lundstrom recalls. “We had good water crews. They just got things going. They fired up the boilers so we could get going.”
The Nevada was the only battleship to get underway that Sunday morning and almost made it out of the harbor. But after being struck by at least five Japanese bombs and one torpedo, it was beached near the entrance to the harbor, intentionally. This way, if the USS Nevada sank, it wouldn’t block the slim channel heading out to the open sea and prevent other ships from escaping.
Fifty men on board the USS Nevada lost their lives during the attack, including a close friend of Lundstrom’s who died of severe burns.
“Anybody who survived it was pretty lucky,” said Lundstrom. He helped bring up ammunition to gun crews during the attack. “We lost a lot of men. And of course the Navy took the brunt of it.”
After the war ended, Lundstrom returned to Rockford and worked for 30 years in maintenance at the Rockford Public Library. He joined the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and returned to Pearl Harbor for both the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the attack, to touch base with his shipmates and to honor fallen sailors.
“I think we did good,” Lundstrom said, when asked about how the crew of the Nevada performed during the attack. “We were fighting back. I think we did the best we could.”
Lundstrom died in 2009 at age 90.
At age 92, Jack Evans is among the few remaining survivors of the attack. The retired Navy Captain was a 17-year-old seaman, assigned to the battleship USS Tennessee, on Dec. 7, 1941.
“We were burning all over,” recalls Evans, and he should know. He had one of the best spots in the entire harbor to witness the destruction. He was at the top of one of the main masts aboard the Tennessee, 90 feet above the main deck and 150 feet above the water, where he served as a lookout. “Everything was on fire; death and destruction were everywhere.”
Seaman First Class Evans got up at 6 a.m. that Sunday, ate breakfast and finished his cleaning duties. He was trying to decide whether he should attend church services when the general quarters alarm sounded about 7:55 a.m.
“We all thought it was a drill,” remembers Evans. “We were kind of mad about it, being Sunday morning.”
That anger soon turned to surprise as he made his way toward his battle station.
“I got up one deck higher and heard a ‘fra-ump’ [loud noise] and thought, ‘what is this, something is going on.’ So I picked up my speed and got to the main deck. As soon as I got to the main deck I could see that bombs had been dropped, planes were upside down, something really bad had been happening. So I went up that ladder really fast to get to the top of the foretop [his battle station].
“Just as I got there, what I thought was the first Japanese plane to drop a torpedo crossed over our focsle [forecastle] area. I was standing there on the foretop and as he passed over the mast, in the rear seat of the plane was a Japanese crew member and if either one of us would have had a potato we would have hit the other, it was so close! We were practically eyeball to eyeball! I knew then we were under attack.”
Evans’ ship, the Tennessee, was moored in “battleship row,” a line of battleships docked closely together along Ford Island that made them easy targets for the Japanese aircraft. Directly behind the Tennessee was the battleship USS Arizona, which exploded in a ball of flame when a Japanese bomb detonated in one of its ammunition magazines, ripping the ship apart and killing more than 1,000 of its crew.
“I wasn’t looking at the ship at the time of the explosion, but I felt it,” remembers Evans. “It felt like the foretop was going to snap off – it was that violent. And of course, as soon as I could, I turned and looked, and the heavy smoke and fire was coming up to a great height. And that’s when I saw the great chunks of metal flying from the ship. So I knew the Arizona had blown up.
“I guess I was scared, but I could function,” recalls Evans. “I didn’t have any problem doing what I was supposed to do … the first thing I did when the Arizona blew up and I felt that surge coming is that I ducked and grabbed hold of that stanchion [an upright post]. I didn’t know if the foretop was going to break off or not! But I realized I was in deep trouble.”
Evans says some of the debris flying out from the exploding Arizona was as big as a locomotive. “When I saw that, I knew damn well I could die that day, especially when I saw what was happening to all of the other battleships. I watched all of those torpedoes go into those exposed battleships and they took about seven torpedoes each. All of the battleships were burning … fuel out all over the water. Everything was on fire.”
While the Tennessee was protected from Japanese torpedoes by being docked inside of the battleship USS West Virginia, it couldn’t escape being damaged by Japanese bombs.
“We got two bomb hits,” recalls Evans. “One on center turret No. 2. The bomb hit the center gun right at the base, penetrated to the bore and split the barrel. That bomb sent shrapnel over to the West Virginia and killed its Commanding Officer. Hit him right in the midsection. He died right on the spot.”
That same bomb burst also sent a piece of shrapnel up into the foretop of the mast of the Tennessee, wounding Jack Evans in the legs.
“I didn’t know it, at the time, or for about a half hour, but it came right between my feet and hit a small stanchion that was right in front of me and splattered me and hit me in both legs. I guess it was about an hour later that somebody said, ‘Hey Jack, you’re bleeding!’ And I looked down and there were four dried tracks of blood in each leg. So I had been hit a number of times by the shrapnel, but I didn’t notice it because I really had a load of adrenaline flowing. I just didn’t feel any pain. And that’s where I got my Purple Heart. ”
It was late afternoon before Evans was allowed to come down from the foretop and report to sickbay to have his wounds checked. “They did a little repair work on it and plucked out some steel and put some Merthiolate on it and said go back to work.”
Evans wasn’t the only sailor wounded on the Tennessee. The second bomb that struck the battleship hit turret No. 3.
“It hit on the flat top surface, penetrated into the turret and killed several men inside,” recalls Evans. “The Tennessee lost a total of five men that day.”
Despite the overwhelming death and destruction of the attack, Evans says he wasn’t scared and neither were most of his crewmates.
“You reacted to it … but most people just set their jawline and went about doing their jobs,” he says. “There were very few who went into hysterics or anything of that nature. I really wasn’t scared. I think my folks brought me up to be capable of handling my own position.”
Even so, Evans clearly remembers just how exasperating it was not to be able give the Japanese attackers some of their own medicine.
“It is so frustrating to be in a situation where there is so little you can do,” he says. “You want to fight those guys. And there was no way to do it.”
Evans’ ship, the Tennessee, was one of the least damaged vessels at Pearl Harbor. It was able to sail out of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 20, Evans’ 18th birthday. It headed back to the mainland for repairs and upgrades and went on to play a major role in several naval battles during the rest of the war.
Evans remained onboard the Tennessee until 1943, when he left with a set of orders for Naval flight training school, his dream job. In time he was promoted to Ensign and, by the end of World War II, he was a pilot, flying twin engine anti-submarine aircraft known as PBYs and PBMs.
But this was just the beginning of Evans’ naval career. He would serve his country for 34 years in the U.S. Navy and rise to the rank of Captain. Before retiring, he would not only serve at the Pentagon, but also command his own ship, the USS Pyro, during the Vietnam conflict. That ship helped supply aircraft carriers and surface warships with ammunition.
Today, Evans lives a quiet life with wife Nancy in southern California. He still enjoys taking part in occasional events that honor veterans and their service.
As he looks back at the attack on Pearl Harbor, many thoughts come to mind.
“I was thankful that I survived,” he says. “I was part of such a historic event. I think if I was 17 and the situation occurred, I’d do it again.”
There’s also a lesson he hopes none of us will forget, from Pearl Harbor: “It was a sneak attack by another nation. All countries should be alert to attacks from other countries. You never know when they will do it.”
He also advocates military readiness.
“When you’re a world power, if you’re not ready for the contingences that you might expect in the world you are living in … We shouldn’t be reluctant to take steps to keep our military strong,” he says.
Evans plans to attend local events in southern California on Dec. 7, to honor fellow veterans and spread his message about military readiness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Ryder is a former Marine sergeant who served in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and was awarded the Joint Service Achievement Medal for his service as a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent and broadcast journalist with the Armed Forces Desert Network.
He’s a lifetime member of the Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association and has received numerous awards for his work from the organization, including Best Television News Story and Best Radio News Story.
Ryder’s father served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army with the First Cavalry Division during World War II, fighting in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines.
Ryder worked as a senior reporter and substitute news anchor for WTVO, the ABC affiliate in Rockford, for almost 20 years, and was recently named Superintendent of the Veterans Assistance Commission of Boone County, a local agency dedicated to helping veterans and their families in need. He has had numerous articles concerning military and naval history published.