VANCOUVER — Local Pearl Harbor survivors and their families gathered in Vancouver this morning to remember the 75th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack that launched the United States’ entry into World War II.
Two Pearl Harbor survivors — Ralph Laedtke of Washougal and Paul Johnson of Vancouver — along with three local Pearl Harbor survivor widows and their immediate family, sat at a long table inside the 40 Et 8 Bingo Hall in north Vancouver, on Wed., Dec. 7, ready to remember the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt correctly predicted would be a “date which will live in infamy.”
Penny Ross, secretary of the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors led the remembrance event. She recalled hearing the tales of Pearl Harbor survivors, including those told to her by her father, Captain Donald Kirby Ross, an officer in the United States Navy who received the first Medal of Honor of World War II for his bravery during the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor.
“I’ve seen the anguish on the faces of the Pearl Harbor survivors,” Ross told the crowd gathered inside the Hazel Dell area bingo hall. “Always, we will remember …”
When Ross asked people in the crowd to share their own memories of the Dec. 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, one woman, Lillian Christina, stood. She was only 9 years old when the attack happened, Christina said, but she remembers seeing the planes coming down, seeing the puffs of smoke after they dropped their bombs and torpedoes on the ships inside Pearl Harbor.
“I remember hearing on my father’s shortwave radio … that this was no joke,” she said. “The Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor. And all personnel were to report to the base. It was scary.”
At 9:55 a.m., Wed., Dec. 7, the crowd fell silent. It was now 7:55 a.m. in Hawaii — the exact time 75 years ago when the Imperial Japanese Navy began their surprise military strike on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. The assault killed 2,400 Americans, wounded another 1,200 Americans, and sunk or severely damaged 15 U.S. Navy ships, including five battleships and three destroyers, and shoved the United States straight into World War II.
Pearl Harbor survivor Paul C. Johnson, of Vancouver, was 23 years old when the attack happened. Newly married, Johnson had already served four years in the U.S. Navy and was just weeks away from an honorable discharge when the ship he was on, the USS Castor, pulled into the Pearl Harbor naval base on Dec. 4, 1941.
Although his ship was carrying tons of ammunition and would have been a prime target for the invading Japanese, Johnson says the USS Castor was loading explosives in San Francisco when the Japanese military took their reconnaissance photos of Pearl Harbor.
“We weren’t in the photos, so they didn’t know we were there,” Johnson explains. “They didn’t target us. But we had 10 tons of ammunition.”
An early riser, Johnson recalls seeing a Japanese plane pass by the upper deck of his ship and dive down low, dropping a torpedo on another ship in the harbor.
“I was drinking coffee,” Johnson, 98, says. “And I saw the plane pass by, so close, and I saw it drop a bomb or a torpedo … and everyone was asking, ‘What do we do?’ but I didn’t have the answer. I didn’t know what to do. All of our ammunition was locked up, so I took a .45 [handgun] and shot the locks off. And we just started distributing the ammunition.”
Unlike many other ships in the Hawaiian naval base that day, the USS Castor was relatively unharmed during the surprise attack and lost no crew members on Dec. 7, 1941.
Johnson’s son, Dan Johnson, of Battle Ground, says his parents married on Nov. 18, just a few weeks before the Dec. 7 attack.
“He was supposed to be out of the Navy by the end of December,” Dan says. Instead, his mother, the late Lucille Johnson, received a three-word telegram on Dec. 7, 1941 from her new husband. “It just said, ‘I OK.’”
A few days later, Lucille received another telegram: “I’ll be in San Francisco Thursday. Be there.”
Dan Johnson says his mother kept both telegrams in a scrapbook. Beside the second message from her new husband — who was now going to war instead of coming home to start a family like the newlyweds expected — Dan says his mother wrote, “Got this on Tuesday. Borrowed $30 from my mother. Leaving Wednesday for San Francisco. Happiest gal in the world.”
Joan Harshberger, of Woodland, widow of Pearl Harbor survivor Earl W. Harshberger, Jr., attended the Pearl Harbor 75th anniversary remembrance event with her daughter, Shelley Kincaid, of Vancouver.
A Pearl Harbor survivor who was aboard the USS West Virginia when the attack occurred, her late husband didn’t talk too much about the “date which will live in infamy,” Harshberger says, but Earl did regain a piece of Pearl Harbor many years after the attack.
“He was wearing a watch, a nice Bulova watch that he’d engraved,” Harshberger says of her husband, Earl. “It was lost during the attack. But they found it later on and sent it to him, because his name was engraved on it.”
The watch was badly burned and damaged, but the engraving was still readable.
“My dad wrote to the company and told them about it,” says Kincaid. “And Bulova sent him and my mom new watches!”
Earl Harshberger died in 1992, but his family members still attend Pearl Harbor remembrance events and tell their loved one’s stories for him.
“He didn’t like to talk about that day too much,” Harshberger says. “But, once, when our son wanted info for a school project, Earl sat down and wrote about it.”
Like other Pearl Harbor survivors, Earl Harshberger went on to fight throughout World War II and was present for other historic events, including the Battle of Iwo Jima — made famous by photographer Joe Rosenthal, who captured the “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photo of six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945.
Today’s 75th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor is being remembered across the nation — President Barack Obama spoke in the morning about the anniversary and honored the men and women who lost their lives in the attack, saying the U.S. and Japan were, today, “bound by an alliance unimaginable 75 years ago” and were continuing “to work hand-in-hand for a more peaceful and secure world.
In Clark County, other cities and military veteran groups were honoring the date with a variety of events throughout the day, including a showing of the classic movie retelling of the Pearl Harbor attack, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Liberty Theatre in Camas; and WWII displays at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill’s interpretive center, at 401 N.E. Adams St., in Camas, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. today, Wed., Dec. 7.