‘And they’d burn like matchsticks’
Survivor recalls attack on Pearl Harbor
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.