Joe Treen
December 09, 1991 12:00 PM

It was not the bloodiest battle fought on U.S. soil; Gettysburg holds that grim distinction. Nor was it militarily the most decisive the country has ever waged (see related story, page 145). But the shocking losses inflicted during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor have made Dec. 7, 1941, a date Americans will never forget.

The attack began at 7:57 on a Sunday morning while many sailors and soldiers slept or lined up for breakfast. In two hellish hours, the United States was plunged into World War II. Four years and 400,000 American lives after the day President Franklin Roosevelt declared would “live in infamy,” Japan and Germany lay in ruins—and the United States had become a reluctant superpower.

This week in Hawaii, hundreds of Americans who survived the attack are returning to remember the 2,403 who did not. Also returning to Pearl, flying this time on commercial airliners, are some of the Japanese pilots who have their own memories of that terrible, bloody day. Here is what happened 50 years ago, as told by those who were there.

Hirata Matsumura, then 24 and a torpedo bomber pilot in the Japanese Imperial Navy. He is now 74 and lives in Tokyo:

On Dec. 7, I woke up on the Hiryu and prepared to leave in the first wave of the attack. I had breakfast and prayed in front of the ship’s shrine to do my best. Then the officers got together and heard a report on conditions at Pearl Harbor. When the meeting ended, the officers had a ceremonial toast of sake to cheer ourselves on for the attack. We raised our cups, drank, and ate a few small dried fish. It was still dark outside just before 6 A.M. when I took off.

George Elliot, then a U.S. Army private. Now 73, he lives in Long Branch, N.J.: Pvt. Joseph Lockard and I were at the radar station at the north end of the island [Oahu] on a mountain called Opana. At 7:02 A.M. I was on the scope and Lockard was looking over my shoulder. We could see a blip at 137 miles. We decided it was a large flight of planes coming in. I called in to the information center, to a fellow named Joe McDonald. He told Lt. Kermit Tyler. Tyler said to forget it—it was probably a large formation of planes from the U.S. to reinforce Hawaii.

Pat Ramsey, a seaman, U.S.S. Shaw. He is 69 and lives in Bellville, Texas:

A Japanese torpedo plane flew over, headed toward Battleship Row [where nine U.S. ships were moored]. I knew it was a torpedo plane because I could see it that close. I was probably 50 feet or less from the Japanese pilot. He banked a little bit and looked out of his cockpit, and I saw him smiling. It looked like he was smiling at me. Then he went on to attack something else.

Hirata Matsumura:

I saw no aircraft carriers in the harbor, so we flew to the south of Ford Island [Battleship Row] and [each] dropped an 800-kg torpedo from about 15 meters above the water. As we flew off to the northwest, I watched the white line my torpedo made in the water and saw the explosion it created 200 meters up in the air. A tower of water was all you could see, but it meant we had hit our target.

Elmer Laughlin, then a patrol plane pilot. He is 71 and lives in Fort Lauderdale:

We ran to the window of the officers’ quarters on Ford Island and saw this Jap fighter going by in a steep turn, with the Rising Sun on the wings and his guns going.

Pat Ramsey:

It looked to me like almost all of Ford Island was on fire. Planes were diving down on the battleships.

Joseph Taussig Jr., then antiaircraft officer on the U.S.S. Nevada. He is 71 and lives in Annapolis, Md.:

I felt a very sharp blow in the bottom of my feet. Maybe 20, 30, 40 seconds after that, I felt a very sharp blow in my thigh. The ship was being strafed. I looked down, and my left foot was under my left armpit. I eventually lost the leg.

Zenji Abe, then first lieutenant, Japanese Imperial Navy. He is 75 and lives in Tokyo:

The second wave left an hour after the first. It took about two hours to fly to Pearl Harbor. [As we flew in] my navigator received a message by Morse code: “Tom! Tom! Tom!” [“Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”], which meant that the surprise attack of the first wave was successful.

Robert Jones, then a bomber navigator. He is 74 and lives in Elmira, N.Y.:

We were flying on radio silence and [using] celestial navigation, having flown all night from Hamilton Field near San Francisco [in B-17Es]. As we came close to what we thought was Hawaii—we weren’t sure if we were close or not—we saw some planes to the northeast of us, coming in the same way. So we figured, “We’re all right.” It turned out they were the Japs coming in at the same time we did. We didn’t understand what was happening.

Iyozo Fujita, then a Japanese fighter pilot. He is 74 and lives in Tokyo:

At 9:13 A.M. we received the order “Attack!” by Morse code. We had radios in the planes, but they were so noisy we didn’t use them. At that time we were excited. But we all believed we would die in the attack. We were fighting a giant, and we believed we would lose. We didn’t carry any parachutes since we intended to die.

Philip Rasmussen, then an Army Air Corps fighter pilot, Wheeler Field. He is 73 and lives in Fort Myers, Fla.:

I strapped on my web belt and 45 caliber pistol over my pajamas, pulled on my boots and ran for the flight line. Outside the barracks, small date palms had recently been planted, and I hid behind a three-foot one, taking shots at the Jap planes as they sped by strafing us.

James Pryor, then a private first class, Army Air Corps. He is 71 and lives in Plantation, Fla.:

When they flew over, I was just outside a hangar [at Hickam Field]. We all heard and saw the [Japanese] planes flying over Battleship Row. Almost instantly we saw them coming from the opposite direction, real low, along our hangar line. They were dropping bombs. We all ran and scattered. We tried to get away. I got just into the hangar when those big hangar doors were blown out. The bomb must have come through the roof. There were several explosions. One of them tore my right hand off, just about an inch above the wrist.

Robert Jones:

We didn’t have much gas left, so we tried to find an alternate field because Hickam was under attack. We tried to go to Bellows Field, 25 miles away, but it was under attack too. We thought of landing on Waikiki Beach, but we were out of gas. So we decided to take it into Hickam. As we came in, we got a Jap on our tail. We got a couple of holes in us, but he didn’t hurt us.

Zenji Abe:

My target that day was supposed to be an aircraft earner in the harbor, either the Enterprise or the Lexington. But neither was there at the time of the attack. I was very disappointed by this, and we had to turn to attacking a battleship. Later, I found out the ship I attacked was the U.S.S. Arizona.

Roy Johnson, then a navigator’s assistant on the U.S.S. Nevada. He is 71 and lives in Long Beach, Calif.:

The Arizona blew up 50 feet ahead of us. It was the biggest, blackest, loudest noise I’ve heard in my life. If you’ve ever taken a firecracker, broken it in two and lit it to see it go up in smoke, that was what it was like. The ship split in two and emitted raging fires and explosions. Both ends split up.

Clyde Combs, then a seaman first class on the U.S.S. Arizona. He is 69 and lives in Pompano Beach, Fla.:

A bomb hit turret 4 and bounced off and went down an open provisions hatch. All our doors, hatches, everything, were open. This thing went off, probably on the fourth deck. It tore things up something terrible with all the doors open. All the lights went out. You couldn’t breathe. There was smoke in there. The feeling you got was helplessness. You couldn’t see, you couldn’t hear, you were gasping [for air], and you were grasping around there trying to figure out where you were.

Donald Inselman, then a seaman, U.S.S. Arizona. He is 75 and lives in Denver: Some officer said we better abandon ship. He said, “Get in the admiral’s barge [a small shuttle boat].” We said, “No, no, no—that’s the admiral’s barge.” He said, “Listen, the admiral [Isaac Kidd] is dead. He won’t know.”

Clyde Combs:

It was about 100 yards to the beach, Ford Island. We decided to swim over there. So we took our shoes off and jumped 10 or 15 feet into the water. But the trouble was, oil on the water was on fire. After we got about a third of the way over there, we decided this was for the birds. So we came back aboard. One of my buddies walked out of the fire on the ship. He said, “Help me, Combs.” I couldn’t tell who he was. He was bacon crisp. We helped him into a whaleboat, a 40-footer, that came up. He died on the way to the beach.

Elmer Laughlin:

The survivors of the Arizona and Oklahoma were staggering across the landing strip [on Ford Island]. They were pretty well covered with oil and blood. We went out to help them, but at that moment a Jap fighter came down the strip, strafing.

Iyozo Fujita:

Every day on board the Sohryu we discussed what to do during the attack. One thing the commander of our fighter group, Mr. Fusata Iida, said was that if he was losing all his fuel [because of gunfire], he would perform a suicide attack with his plane. We all agreed to do the same. We were flying in formation, Iida’s plane near mine. I was the second commander of the group. Iida turned and saluted me, then pointed to his mouth and shook his head. This meant he had no more fuel. His plane had been hit. Then he pointed to himself and then straight down. Then he waved sayonara, made a quick, sharp turn and disappeared into the black smoke on the ground.

Clyde Combs:

I saw a fireman [on Ford Island] I knew from the ship. I said, “How’d you get out of there?” He said, “I don’t know. I woke up swimming.”

Philip Rasmussen:

I ran down to the hangar line and it was chaos. Ammunition was exploding in the hangars. Fires everywhere. An airplane would explode and in turn ignite the plane next to it. The only planes not burning were a few Curtis P-36s. I jumped into one and got it started. During a lull in the attack, we took off in formation. At about 9,000 feet we spotted some [Japanese] planes and dove to attack them.

Iyozo Fujita:

A P-36 [Rasmussen’s] started attacking my plane. It was so close I couldn’t get away. We were dog-fighting. So I decided to die, since Mr. Iida had already committed suicide. I approached the P-36 to crash my plane into it, but then suddenly it turned and flew away from me. I thought maybe I had hit it and it had gone down, but much later I heard the pilot of that plane is still alive, that it had landed and 500 bullet holes were found in it.

Philip Rasmussen:

My canopy was shattered. My hydraulic lines were severed. And my tail wheel was shot off. Two 20-mm cannon shells exploded against the radio equipment behind the pilot’s seat. That saved my life, since there was no armor protection. As 7.7-mm bullets peppered the catwalks on both sides of the cockpit, I ducked into the nearest cloud cover, struggling to stabilize the plane. After getting the plane under control, I gingerly reached to the top of my head to see how badly I was injured. I was not wearing a helmet, only earphones. To my relief, I found only shredded Plexiglass from the canopy mixed in my hair. There were 500 bullet holes in my plane.

Elmer Laughlin:

Our ground and flight crews pulled machine-gun repair benches out, set up machine guns and fired away. I was standing at the southeast corner of the hangar, next to a photographer, and we watched this dive bomber come down. It hit the U.S.S. Shaw.

Pat Ramsey:

It was the biggest explosion you can imagine. Fire rolled over the top of the dry dock [where the Shaw was moored]. My feet and both my arms were burned by the flash. I must have been bending over, because my jacket rode up in the back and I had a solid burn across my back. The shore was 50 or 100 feet away. Not far. But there was oil all over the water, and some of it was burning. We had to dive under the patches of burning oil several times. But it wasn’t too bad. I wasn’t hurting yet. My burns were covered with oil, and maybe that had something to do with it. Or maybe it was just that the shock and excitement were so great that I couldn’t feel pain at first. I don’t know. We got out and started walking. I had a lot of little pieces of shrapnel under my skin. We had heard loudspeakers warning everybody against picking up anybody (we didn’t know if we had been invaded), so we just started walking toward where we thought the hospital was.

Mary Louise Laager Geisler, then an Army nurse. She is now 73 and lives in San Antonio:

I walked out to the front where the nurses’ desk was and looked down to the left, down that long hall. As far as I could see there were litters with patients dying, some already dead, and it was up to me to bring in as many as we could. One young man said he was 17 and had just gone into the Navy. Then he said, “I just graduated from high school.” I think he knew he wasn’t going to make it, because he was bleeding from everyplace. It was awful, and he said to me, “Nurse, will you take my graduation ring off and see to it my family gets it?” This is the only time that day I cried. [The Red Cross later mailed the ring to his parents.]

Iyozo Fujita:

We flew back to the Sohryu. The mood on board the ship was happy, since we saw that our attack on Pearl Harbor was a success. Of the 377 planes sent out that day, only 29 had not returned.

Harry Longerich, then an Army radio operator at Fort Shatter. He is now 74 and lives in Fredericksburg, Texas:

Pearl Harbor galvanized the United States. Three or four months after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was welded into one great country. That’s what made us win the war.


DON SIDER in Florida, JOSEPH HARMES and KENT DEMARET in Texas, JANICE FUHRMAN in Tokyo, and bureau reports

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