‘And they’d burn like match­sticks’

Sur­vivor re­calls at­tack on Pearl Harbor

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY BROCK VERGAKIS

Ge­orge Web­ster was a sea­plane pi­lot driv­ing to work on Ka­neohe Bay Naval Air Sta­tion in Hawaii when he spot­ted planes fly­ing over the is­land of Oahu. He as­sumed, like many oth­ers, that they were part of the Army Air Corps putting on a show. Then the bul­lets started fly­ing.

The United States was un­der at­tack by the Ja­panese, who were mak­ing their way to the Navy base at Pearl Harbor. Mr. Web­ster — now 101 years old — said re­cently that he still feels lucky to have sur­vived the in­fa­mous sneak at­tack that pro­pelled the coun­try into World War II 75 years ago to­day.

Mr. Web­ster had spent the previous night with three other crew mem­bers aboard a sea­plane float­ing in the ad­ja­cent bay be­fore head­ing to his on-base apart­ment for a quick break­fast. Once he saw the at­tack­ing planes, he re­turned home to tell his wife, Lil­lian, and their neigh­bors to flee to nearby woods.

He watched Ja­panese bul­lets pock­mark a dirt road as he sped down it in a two-door 1935 Ford to­ward the base’s hangar to muster.

“They were shoot­ing at me; they were div­ing on the hangar,” he said.

Once he gath­ered with the oth­ers in his squadron, his ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer yelled at them to take cover. Mr. Web­ster ran about 200 feet to­ward a hangar that was un­der con­struc­tion and dove be­tween two piles of sand.

Planes were light­ing up all around him. All 33 at the base or an­chored in the bay were de­stroyed or ren­dered un­us­able — in­clud­ing the one he had left only two hours ear­lier. Plumes of black smoke filled the air.

“All they had to do was shoot and start them burn­ing and they’d burn like match­sticks,” Mr. Web­ster said.

With few weapons, the men on the ground were vul­ner­a­ble and nearly de­fense­less. But Mr. Web­ster saw two sailors risk their lives to pro­tect oth­ers.

Mr. Web­ster said John Finn, a chief avi­a­tion ord­nance­man, manned a ma­chine gun in an ex­posed sec­tion of a park­ing ramp. Mr. Web­ster said the gun was mounted for main­te­nance, not for de­fense, and the stand had to be held down by an­other sailor while Finn fired it.

Finn suf­fered mul­ti­ple wounds but kept shoot­ing in de­fense of the air­field, which is now part of Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Finn later was awarded the Medal of Honor for his ef­forts. A de­stroyer named af­ter Finn was chris­tened last year in Mis­sis­sippi.

“The sea­man that was hold­ing the mount down didn’t even get recog­ni­tion for what he did,” Mr. Web­ster said.

But if that sea­man is any­thing like Mr. Web­ster, recog­ni­tion may not be im­por­tant.

The day af­ter the at­tack, Mr. Web­ster got into one of three sea­planes that sur­vived only be­cause they were out on pa­trol at the time. It would be the first of 186 com­bat mis­sions dur­ing the war for Mr. Web­ster, who flew re­con­nais­sance and bomb­ing mis­sions.

Only when it’s brought up by a friend does he men­tion he was awarded an Air Medal for de­stroy­ing a Ja­panese cargo ship. Even still, he de­murs and says he can’t be pos­i­tive he ac­tu­ally sunk it be­cause he saw only two of the four bombs he dropped from close range hit their tar­get.

And there were the times he sur­vived crash land­ings in the ocean be­cause his planes ran out of fuel. He helped save his crew mem­bers’ lives by get­ting them into a raft and to a nearby is­land, where he sig­naled al­lied air­planes by spell­ing out mes­sages on the beach us­ing rocks.

But medals and recog­ni­tion aren’t im­por­tant to him. You can’t eat a medal, he said.

A PBY pa­trol bomber burns at Naval Air Sta­tion Ka­neohe, Oahu, Hawaii, dur­ing the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Sea­plane pi­lot Ge­orge Web­ster was driv­ing to work dur­ing the at­tack.


Ge­orge Web­ster was a Navy pi­lot at Ka­neohe Air­base on the is­land of Oahu near Pearl Harbor when the Ja­panese at­tacked Dec. 7, 1941.

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