Published 02 December 05
[Originally published at NavySEALs.com, 30 Nov 05]
W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Where we were when Pearl Harbor was attacked
WWII veterans share their personal places-in-time with W. Thomas Smith Jr.
On December 7, 1941, my dad and a few his buddies were sitting on top of a soft-drink cooler outside of a Shell gasoline station in the little town of Williston, South Carolina.
Dad, who passed away in 1999, often told me how he sat there on that early Sunday afternoon holding a bottle of RC Cola, his legs dangling over the side, his brown Sunday School shoes alternately banging on the outside of the big metal cooler.
All at once an out-of-breath teenager burst out of the station building from a squeaky hinged screen door. "I just heard on the radio, the Japs [sic] are bombing Hy-WAH-yah!" he shouted.
Dad was barely 12 years old, far too young for military service (he would later serve during the Korean War). But millions of young American men – including Dad's older brother, Ben, and several uncles on Mom's side of the family – as well as many young American women would be flocking to the colors: Some within days. Others would sign up over the next few months. For many, who had not reached an age yet old enough to serve, it would be a few more years.
BRIG. GEN. DEAN DUBOIS
One of those boys was now-retired Brig. Gen. Dean DuBois, then a 15-year-old son of a firefighter living in Gulfport, Mississippi.
"My friend, Bobby Finley, and I were going to a movie," says DuBois. "We were getting ready to leave my house when we heard the radio announcer say, 'Special Report from Washington.' When we learned the Japanese had attacked, my father said, 'It may be a long war ahead. Let's hope not.'"
As they walked the two miles to the movie house, DuBois and Finley discussed their futures.
"We both said we were going Navy!" he says. "We were ready then, but too young."
Within three years, DuBois, was a 17-year-old sonarman aboard a destroyer hunting U-boats in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. As if that wasn't exciting enough, in late 1944 he volunteered for the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) – forerunners of the modern Navy SEALs – but the war was soon winding down and his request was denied. DuBois was later commissioned in the Mississippi National Guard. He rose to colonel in the Army Reserve. Along the way, he earned a law degree, wrote for UPI, and authored a handful of books. He retired from the South Carolina State Guard (a National Guard auxiliary) as brigadier general.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.
Like DuBois, 16-year-old William F. Buckley Jr., the future best-selling author and founder of National Review, was too young for service when he first learned of the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
"I was in a car being driven by my mother, returning from an Arthur Rubinstein concert in Poughkeepsie [New York]," recalls Buckley. "We heard the news on the radio, returning to Millbrook School."
Three years later, Buckley joined the U.S. Army and soon thereafter was commissioned a second lieutenant (A few years later, he would serve a brief stint in the new Central Intelligence Agency. "I did training in Washington as a secret agent and was sent to Mexico City," Buckley wrote to me in a letter dated March 12, 2001. "There I served under the direct supervision of Howard Hunt, about whom of course a great deal is known.").
Buckley would launch National Review in 1955, begin hosting Firing Line – the longest-running television debate program – in 1966, and write numerous acclaimed works of fiction and non-fiction spanning a lifetime.
SIDNEY C. GRAHN
Several miles east of Millbrook, 16-year-old Sidney C. Grahn was home in North Canton, Connecticut when he heard the news of the Japanese attack over the radio.
"I remember later riding on the school bus – I was a junior in high school – thinking about Pearl Harbor," he says. "I thought, 'in a year or two, I'm going to be in the military, as will everybody else.'"
In less than three years, Grahn found himself an Army Air Force (AAF) tail gunner on a B-26 Marauder, and under attack by a Nazi FW-190 somewhere over Luxembourg. "I could see the sheets of aluminum flying off the left wing of the adjacent airplane in the formation," he remembers.
Grahn survived that engagement and many others, retiring years later as a U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant.
Eli Baar was also destined to be an AAF gunner. But on December 7, 1941, he was a 20-year-old textile salesman for Cohn-Hall-Marx in New York, attending night school at NYU, and boarding at his cousin's home in Brooklyn. That's where he was, listening to a radio in his bedroom, when he first heard of the attacks. "First thing I thought was, 'where the hell is Pearl Harbor?'" Baar says. "I hated what I was doing with a passion, so I joined up."
Baar volunteered for pilot training, was transferred to gunnery school, and ended up in the ball turret of a B-17. The ball turret was the cramped round sphere located beneath the aircraft fuselage where one man with his twin-.50 caliber machine-guns hung above the earth and fought enemy planes.
Baar flew 31 combat missions inside the hellish little sphere from November 1943 to June 1944.
SENATOR BOB DOLE
In late 1941, future Senator Robert J. Dole was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Kansas and a member of the Jayhawk basketball team.
On December 7, "I was in the Kappa Sig house at K.U.," he says. "We were all stunned, knowing many of us would be in the service soon."
Service indeed. In 1942, Dole joined the U.S. Army, and was soon commissioned a second lieutenant in the crack 10th Mountain Division.
During subsequent fighting in Italy, Dole was badly wounded in the back and right arm by enemy machinegun fire. Despite having to wait on the battlefield for nine hours before being evacuated, Dole survived. He returned to the states where he became a U.S. Senator, Senate Majority Leader, and a presidential candidate.
LT. COL. HERBERT CARTER
Herbert E. Carter was also a freshman student on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, but at Tuskegee University in Alabama where he was studying to become a veterinarian.
"I heard the news on my roommate's radio," Carter recalls. "I was 18, draft age, and did not want to be drafted into the Army."
Carter, who became one of the pioneering African-American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, says that every member of the armed forces in his family had been private soldiers in rear-echelon units with few opportunities for advancement. "I determined that if I was going to serve, I was going to be an officer," he says. "I even dared to dream that I could be a pilot."
That he did, flying numerous combat missions over North Africa and Europe, and ultimately retiring from the U.S. Air Force.
DOMINIC "DOM" FUSCI
A scholarship tackle on the University of South Carolina football team on Dec. 7, 1941, New York City native Dom Fusci was listening to the radio in the Delta Zeta sorority lounge at USC.
"The coeds always had cookies for us, and we often listened to records and the radio with them in the lounge," Fusci recalls. "While we were there, we heard the radio broadcast that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. We all knew then we were at war."
Within a couple of years, Fusci found himself roaring across some of the most dangerous Western Pacific channels as a machine-gunner on a PT boat and at times on a PT boat-tender. The biggest threat, he remembers, was from the attacking kamikazes. Fusci also made time for a lighthearted fun with shipmates.
"On Okinawa I got a letter from the Washington Redskins," he recalls. "I was a third round draft choice, and they wanted to discuss a contract with me when I got back to Washington."
Fusci approached his commanding officer about the letter, explaining to him that he was being called to Washington to discuss a draft matter.
Confused, the officer asked why Fusci would receive such orders. Fusci handed the letter to the officer.
"The CO read the letter," said Fusci, laughing. "Then he looked at me and said, 'Get your big a** back on that PT boat.'"
Fusci never played with the Redskins, but went on to play two post-war seasons with the Patterson Panthers (a 1940's NFL farm team) and four games with the Philadelphia Eagles, before beginning a successful sales career with RCA.
DR. ALMA BOND
Alma H. Bond, a future psychoanalyst and author of 12 books, was a 17-year-old sophomore at Temple University in Philadelphia when she learned of the attacks.
"A few classmates and I were sitting in a booth in a small luncheonette near the college when the news came over the radio," she says. "I later remember hearing Roosevelt say, this is 'a date which will live in infamy.'"
Graduating with a psychology degree two years later, Bond volunteered for the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) as an "officer in training." Commissioned an ensign – later promoted to a lieutenant (junior grade) – she says, "I joined the Navy to see the world, but they stationed me in Bayonne, New Jersey, where I worked as a communications officer at the Naval Supply Depot."
Bond requested a transfer to New York City, where she worked as a personnel officer at Rockefeller Center in the "Entertainment Branch" of the Army. "My job was to direct soldier shows, help the servicemen pass their tests for higher ratings, and to find them lodging and entertainment – i.e. theatre tickets – while they were in New York," she says.
Bond later married Hollywood character actor Rudy Bond, and would eventually earn a Ph.D in psychology.
LEON H. JONES
Retired insurance agent Leon H. Jones was the 17-year-old son of a general merchandiser in Anderson, S.C. when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
"I don't really remember what I was doing on that particular day, because the military was the farthest thing from my mind," he says. "My mother and father were really upset, but I was just too interested in girls and dating. The war seemed so far away from the world I lived in."
A few months later, Jones' older brother was drafted. "Then it hit home," he says.
When Jones turned 18, he was drafted into the Army, specifically into a combat engineer battalion attached to Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army. He saw quite a bit of action in the months following the June 6, 1944 invasion of Normandy. "It wasn't so much the dead and wounded that we encountered that was so disturbing – we saw dead Germans all over the countryside everyday," Jones says. "But when someone from our unit was wounded or killed, that was terrible."
PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH
On December 7, future U.S. President George H.W. Bush was a 17-year-old student and captain of the baseball team at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. "I remember it well," he says. "We had just left church and started to walk across campus when someone shouted out, 'Pearl Harbor's been bombed.'"
On his 18th birthday, the following June, Bush signed up to become a Naval aviator. He completed flight school and earned his commission a few days before his 19th birthday making him the youngest aviator in the Navy at that time.
Surviving a crash during an aerial training mishap five months later, Bush shipped out with a torpedo bomber squadron.
In action, Bush was twice shot down by antiaircraft fire. But his best-known exploit took place September 2, 1944 while dive-bombing a Japanese radio center on Chichi Jima. Bush's plane was struck: His tail gunner was killed. The aircraft caught fire, and smoke filled the cockpit. Nevertheless, he continued diving on the target, unloading his payload on the enemy position, and then struggling to regain altitude, pointing his crippled aircraft's nose out to sea.
When far enough out, Bush ordered his radioman to bail out. The radioman jumped and was killed. Bush then jumped himself, slamming into the aircraft's tale as he was swept from the cockpit, splitting his head open, and ripping his parachute. Miraculously, he survived.
Three hours later, Bush was rescued by the submarine, USS Finback. His combat action did not end on that mission. The future president spent the next three months aboard Finback as the sub continued to attack enemy ships.
Like Buckley, Bush later served in the CIA, but as director of Central Intelligence; and among other lofty posts, he became the 41st President of the United States. Nevertheless, as the former president remembers, it was December 7, 1941 that "changed the lives of all in our country and certainly my own forever."
— W. Thomas Smith Jr., a former U.S. Marine infantry leader, parachutist, and shipboard counterterrorism instructor, writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is an award-winning author of four books, the co-author of two, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, CBS News, The Washington Times, and many others.
W. Thomas Smith Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 W. Thomas Smith Jr.