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Moment of Truth

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At first a pilot figured the racket was a drill. A sailor below decks guessed coral reefs were being dynamited. “You don’t expect on Sunday morning,” says another former sailor, Robert Varill, “to have Japanese torpedo bombers on your doorstep.” But there they were. At 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, the first of more than 300 Japanese planes appeared over Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, home of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The surprise attack killed 2,390 U.S. troops and 49 civilians and thrust America into World War II. What President Franklin Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy”—dramatized nearly 60 years later by the movie Pearl Harbor, opening May 25—was for all involved a day of fear, bravery and searing memories. Here are some of their stories.


In the air he faced overpowering odds

“When you’re a man,” says Taylor, “the first thing you do when you’re surprised is pull on your pants.” When bombs pounding nearby hangars jolted him awake in quarters at Wheeler Field, 10 miles north of Pearl Harbor, the 21-year-old Army Air Corps lieutenant grabbed the first pair handy: the tuxedo pants he had worn to a party at the officers’ club the night before. With most of their squadron’s planes blown to bits, Oklahoma native Taylor and fellow pilot George Welch, 23, drove to another airfield and took off in two P-40 fighters. Only then did they realize what they were up against. “There were between 200 and 300 planes from Japan,” says Taylor, now 81. “There were just the two of us.”

A few other U.S. fighters made it into the air later that day. But at first it was just Taylor and Welch—very rough models for the pilots played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett in Pearl Harbor—against the Japanese. “We got in and broke up their party for a while,” says Taylor, who landed once for more ammunition. When a Japanese plane got on his tail and opened fire, hitting him in the arm, Welch shot it down. Together the two downed at least six enemy planes.

Taylor and Welch received the Distinguished Service Cross for their heroism. After another year and a half in the Pacific, Taylor returned to the U.S. to train pilots in 1943. A father of two with wife Flora, who lives with him in Anchorage, he commanded the Alaska Air National Guard as a brigadier general before retiring from the military in 1970. Welch, who became a top civilian test pilot, died in 1954 when a prototype fell apart in midair. “He was a wonderful pilot and a good friend,” says Taylor. “We were a couple of young lieutenants who got very lucky.”


A 6-year-old cowered in a cane field

The older child of a postman and a hula teacher, Nicholson, then 6, was preparing for church when explosions rocked her family’s harbor-front home. They fled to a sugarcane field where, she says, “all I could think about was my dog Hula Girl. She was hiding under the house.” Evacuated to a sugar mill for four nights, the family returned to find an uninjured pup and bullets in their walls. For the rest of the war, Nicholson went to school with “my backpack on my right shoulder, my gas mask on my left.” Now 65, the hula dancer turned psychotherapist lives in Kansas City, Mo., with husband Larry, 69. She often gives talks to teach kids, she says, “the devastating effects of war.”


A birthday bash postponed

A fireman on the battleship USS Pennsylvania, Fickel was looking forward to a heck of a 21st birthday on Dec. 8. His plan: a three-day date with a girl in a beachfront cabana.

The celebration never got started. Scheduled for leave starting at 7:45 a.m. on Dec. 7, the Texan heard thuds as he waited in the dry-docked ship’s engine room. Then his relief man burst in, yelling, “They’re strafing us!” Fickel climbed to the deck. “The Oklahoma was starting to list,” he recalls. “It was total mayhem, and no one looked like they knew what to do.” Retreating to the bowels of the ship, “all we could really do was sit and wait,” says Fickel, 81. “When you don’t know if you’re going to be hit at any second, you just grit your teeth and brace yourself.”

Eighteen men were killed on the ship, but things could have been worse. The Pennsylvania had traded places the day before with the USS Arizona, which lost 1,177 men and sank. Now living in Belton, Texas, with his third wife, Billie, 71, Fickel retired from the Navy in 1959, after many years stationed in Japan, where he worked through his need for vengeance. “I feel safer walking the streets of Japan,” he says, “than walking the streets of my own country.”


A sailor pulled wounded from the oil-stained water

“We never panicked,” says Varill, 80. “We were all out of panic that day. We were mad.”

Then a 20-year-old Navy fireman, the New Hampshire native was on the tugboat Sunnadin when planes started roaring toward the battleships across the harbor. Some of the men thought it was a drill. “Then,” Varill says, “the Oklahoma rolled over and the Arizona exploded.”

Varill and shipmate John Frank Lynch dashed to their battle station, forming a two-man rescue crew in the Sunnadin’s 26-ft. motorized whaleboat. As bombs filled the air and thick black fuel oil spread over the harbor, they picked the wounded out of the water. “We pulled them in and lay them down,” Varill says. The pair ferried at least two dozen men, some with missing limbs, to the docks. Still, “no one died on us in the boat that I know of,” says Varill. His shipmates scrubbed the oil off him with diesel fuel that night. The next day he and Lynch got back in the boat: “That’s when you picked up the corpses.”

Varill, who lives in San Antonio with wife Ann, 80 (they have one daughter), served aboard the Sunnadin and then several aircraft carriers before leaving the Navy in 1959. He long ago lost touch with Lynch and still struggles with his feelings toward Japan. He realizes “the Japanese today had nothing to do with [the attack], but I can still find a lot of hate. I wish I was a philosopher—I’d understand it better.”


She found horror in Hawaii—along with the love of her life

In January 1941 Miriam Wilde, a 20-year-old Texas-born daughter of an Army officer, was sunning on the beach at Waikiki when she encountered Harvey Hop, 23, a Navy ensign. “He was 6’5″ and magnificent,” she says. “I knew there and then I would marry him.” She did—the next month. And when the Japanese planes came in December (passing so close to their naval quarters that Hop could see a pilot’s goggles), she says, “we were too young and foolish to be afraid.”

Reality set in fast. With bombs still falling, Harvey, a naval patrol-plane pilot, reported for duty while Hop and her mother helped out at the Hickam Field hospital. Hearing nothing from him as he spent the next three days at the harbor’s seaplane base, she feared for his life. Then on Dec. 10, she says, “Harvey snuck back to see me. There was an alert alarm, and we went out and crouched behind a little old palm tree, as if that would protect us.”

Harvey and Miriam escaped the war without injury and went on to become great-grandparents. In 1999 Harvey, who built a successful air-charter business in Fort Lauderdale, died of a heart attack. Last year Miriam returned to Waikiki to scatter his ashes over the sea. “He was my life,” she says now. “I never lived until I married him.”


A Japanese pilot who was certain of defeat

As a 17-year-old in 1938, with his nation already at war with China, Fukushima high schooler Maeda was obsessed with airplanes. “I did not want to be a fighter pilot,” says Maeda, 80. “I just wanted to fly.” Almost four years later he found himself piloting 1 of 27 torpedo bombers bound for Pearl Harbor from the aircraft carrier Kaga. “We were tense but felt some sort of exhilaration,” Maeda says of the airmen, who ate a breakfast of whole grilled fish before taking off at 6:05 a.m. “I had nothing against the United States. All I wanted was to accomplish my mission and make it back.” By 7:45 they had reached their target. Swooping in low, Maeda’s crew fired one of the seven torpedoes that sank the USS West Virginia, killing 106. In March 1945 he spotted the same ship during a battle near Okinawa and knew the U.S. would win the war. “They had salvaged and fixed it,” he marvels. Married for 50 years to Fusako, 75, Maeda, who became an architectural engineer, now has two sons, two grandchildren—and an unlikely friend: West Virginia survivor Richard Fiske, 79, whom he met at a 1991 commemorative ceremony at Pearl Harbor. “When I first met Fiske, I apologized,” he says. “He replied, ‘No more sorrys.’ ”


A teen braved bombs to help at a hospital

“Stay off the highway,” the radio blared. “Oahu is under attack.” But the next bulletin led Unger, an 18-year-old truck driver living with his civilian parents and two younger sisters near Honolulu, to take his chances: The Red Cross needed volunteers. He drove his 1929 Model A Ford to Honolulu and was assigned to a makeshift military hospital at Hickam Field. He manned a bucket brigade to bring doctors clean water and carried out the dead. “Amazingly, it was deathly quiet,” he says. “People just quietly dying.”

Two weeks later he enlisted in the Army. His first duty: to set up a camp for Japanese POWs and Japanese-American locals interned for fear they might be enemy sympathizers. “These were American citizens,” he says. “I tried not to think about it.” Now 77, the retired food-company executive and father of six with wife Janice, 76, is a volunteer at the USS Arizona Memorial. Sometimes, he says, “I still get choked up.”


Their baby dodged a bullet

From their rental home on a lush peninsula jutting out into Pearl Harbor, Marine Corps Captain Moore, then 27, and his wife, Bryant, 23, had a dangerously close view of the chaos. “It all happened so suddenly, we couldn’t believe that it was the real thing,” Bryant wrote in her diary on the afternoon of Dec. 7. “Traces of smoke…drifted off into the clouds. Then came a surge of the rat-tat-tat of machine guns.” Friends phoned and dropped by to see if the Moores knew what was going on. Soon a radio bulletin confirmed that Pearl Harbor was under attack. With the windows rattling and the house shaking, the couple took shelter in a kitchen doorway with their 9-month-old baby Margaret, nicknamed Goober. Unaware of the carnage going on in the harbor, “I suppose subconsciously we were scared,” says Carl, now 87 and a grandfather of five living in suburban Atlanta with Bryant, “but we were sort of excited.”

That is, until they spotted a bullet hole in the wall about 3 in. above Goober’s crib in her room—”just where she had been standing before we picked her up,” says Bryant, who still had the poise to brew a pot of coffee as her husband dressed for duty. She and Goober were evacuated to the hills while Carl helped organize antiaircraft defenses in case of another attack. Reunited two days later, says Carl, “we were thankful that we had survived.” Carl, who had a son, Thomas, now 54, with Bryant after the war and also fought in Korea, retired as a colonel in 1964. But the tale of the stray bullet lives on in family lore. “I’ve always heard that I was very lucky,” says daughter Margaret van Naerssen, 60, a married college professor with a 26-year-old son and a 21-year-old daughter. “I’ve heard it for years and years.”


Two brothers joined the Navy. One came home

“He was my protector,” Grand Pre says of his beloved brother Art. So when Art joined the Navy at 20, John, 18, followed. The two South Dakota farm boys were assigned to the boiler rooms of the battleship Oklahoma. As the attack began, each escaped into the harbor. John, who swam to safety on the Maryland, initially heard that his brother was safe, but a sailor had mistaken John for Art. Two days later he learned that Art had been killed in the water by Japanese strafing. But there was no time to grieve. “We were at war,” he says. Married to Eda, 85, Grand Pre, now 78, glances at the photos of his two sons and two granddaughters on the walls of his Stratford, Conn., home and thinks of the young men like Art. “They didn’t have this,” he says of his full life. “They didn’t have a chance.”

Samantha Miller and Anne-Marie O’Neill

Reported by: Leslie Berestein, Jennifer Frey, Pam Grout, Anne Lang, Jeannie McCabe, Nobuko Matsushita, Don Sider and Bob Stewart