Survivors recall Pearl Harbor
Now, there are but 4 S.A. veterans of the attack
They stood in silence at 11:55 a.m. Friday as they have for years, marking the moment Japan launched an attack on Pearl Harbor that forced the United States into World War II.
The local veterans of that battle, a group of San Antonians who once boasted dozens of members, number only four now, and only two made it to their annual lunch, but their memories of that day 77 years ago are still strong.
One-time Radioman 1st Class William St. John and retired Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Platt, both 97, were surrounded by three dozen or so family and friends at the Barn Door, the North Side steakhouse where the reunion has been held for a number of years.
That was an accomplishment. “We're hoping for two, but they're not in very good shape,” Ernest Hernandez had said earlier in the week. His wife, Irene, is an organizer for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association's San Antonio chapter, which had a robust roster of 64 members in 1992. Two members have died in the past 13 months: retired Air Force Maj. Richard Anderson and John Buchanan.
Gilbert Meyer, who served aboard the USS Utah, was thought by organizers to be observing the anniversary in Hawaii. Another survivor, retired Army Col. Bill Hayes, lives in a local nursing home and didn’t make the gathering. He turned 100 last August and is said to have good and bad days.
Retired Army Maj. Virgil Lee Ward never belonged to the group when he lived here but attended its 2016 luncheon. He now lives in Duncanville, 13 miles south of Dallas. At 99, he’s planning on coming to San Antonio for a 100th birthday bash Feb. 2 — and he’s amazed about it.
“I consider myself lucky to get out,” said Ward, who served from 1935-65 and had close calls in World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam War. “I was just lucky all the way through.”
Nationwide, only a few can speak of being part of a battle that involved around 60,000 sailors, soldiers and pilots. Events across the country Friday saluted them. Commemorations in Texas, one of them at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, mark the moment the battle began at 11:55 a.m.
It was dawn in Hawaii. Waves of Japanese planes came out of the blue at 7:55 a.m., specks at first that grew larger and more menacing to confused and stunned onlookers on the ground.
A Japanese strike force of 353 aircraft had launched from the decks of four aircraft carriers. The attack lasted just 75 minutes and left 2,403 Americans dead, including 68 civilians, as the morning sky turned black from acrid smoke rising from Battleship Row.
The USS Arizona took nearly half of all the casualties, 1,177 killed. Now a memorial at Pearl Harbor, it was one of 21 U.S. ships damaged or destroyed in one of the war’s most lopsided and humiliating American defeats — and the Navy’s worst ever.
The next day, Japanese forces landed near Singapore and invaded Thailand. They seized Guam and invaded the Philippines on Dec. 10 and Burma on Dec. 11. They swept into British Borneo and Hong Kong and took Wake Island just before Christmas.
Eight U.S. battleships were sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor. The Americans lost 169 planes to 29 Japanese. But perhaps the most important targets, three U.S. Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers, were out to sea on the day of the attack. They quickly formed the core of a Navy counterpunch that bloodied Japan in the Coral Sea and won a turning-point victory at the Battle of Midway that June.
Ward knew tensions between the U.S. and Japan were high — he had read a story about negotiations faltering between Japanese and American emissaries in Washington — but there was no hint of war. He had good reason to read: he earned extra money with a paper route, throwing the Honolulu Advertiser. It paid more than the Army, which cut him a $21-a-month check.
Ward was at the Post Exchange before dawn to collect his newspapers, but the clock struck 6:30 a.m., and then 7, and they didn’t arrive. Shortly after 7:55 a.m., he saw the fighters.
“They were flying in a formation when they first came in and then they split up, of course, and they were diving in the air where I was at and I was pretty close,” Ward recalled this week. He began trying to get back to his post at Diamond Head, a phone exchange he helped run as a Signal Corps soldier.
“It shook me up, of course, and not having been exposed to any such thing like that, it kind of scared me,” Ward said. “But the first thing I thought of was go to my duty station. I didn’t have any instructions from anybody on anything. I was just by myself.”
Like many soldiers, sailors and airmen, Platt was asleep in his bunk. A terrible but familiar noise roused him and others at Schofield Barracks as machine-gun bullets crashed through a window a few feet away. He dived beneath his bed.
Platt said he got to know the Japanese when he was stationed there after the war.
“They’re people just like we are,” Platt said. “I don’t blame the Japanese people. The leaders are the ones I blame for it.”
St. John had just gotten off the job with a fellow sailor, Woodrow Strauss. They worked at a newly established air station that had three 180-foot-tall towers on Kaneohe Bay.
Plane after plane dropped bombs in the distance before one enemy pilot flew closer and eyeballed him. But he had to avoid the towers — “otherwise he would have cut me in two,” St. John said.
“That’s the only thing that saved me.”
Kenneth Platt, left, talks with fellow Pearl Harbor survivor William St. John following a luncheon Friday in their honor.
A photo of Richard Anderson, a Pearl Harbor survivor who died last year, is at the luncheon table.
Retired Major Gen. Alfred Valenzuela, with Pearl Harbor survivor Radioman 1st Class William St. John, addresses a gathering of Pearl Harbor family members at the Barn Door on Friday.