Sat, Dec 03 2011 12:00 PM Posted By: Richard Peña
It was along about this time of year in 1961 that I joined a group of Pearl Harbor Survivors and wrote short stories in The Star-News, explaining our adventures—or misadventures— of that fateful day that we had experienced some 20 years earlier.
As I recall, what I wrote was somewhat inane, something about being “too frightened to be scared.” It was, of course, the 20th anniversary of the attack by Japanese planes on the fleet in Pearl Harbor.
In a few short days that anniversary will, once more, be observed but this time it will be year 70.
To be truthful, after so many years the events of that day are rather hazy. Oh, there are still some portions of them that we will probably never forget. Those are the ones that we have discussed with others on separate occasions and they have become indelible, inscribed in stone, as the saying goes.
I was on the light cruiser Detroit during the attack and my battle station was as the helmsman, that is, the fellow who steered the ship when underway. The Detroit was one of the few ships who left the harbor that morning. But this was not immediately. It was about two hours after the first bombs were dropped. There had been a report that the entrance had been mined by an enemy submarine, hence that portion of the harbor had to be swept clear. But once given the go ahead out we went, not at the pokey one third speed that was the norm, but at flank speed, everything she had, which was about 30 knots.
We very quickly hit the open sea where we could maneuver and almost immediately heard the dreaded announcement from a lookout, “Torpedo on the starboard side.”
With no hesitation the captain gave me the command, “Full rudder,” I don’t remember whether it was right or left. In any event the ship responded and at 30 knots something had to give. It listed so far to one side that one would have thought it would capsize. What did happen was everyone on the bridge, including me and the captain, lost our footing and fell to the deck. The captain looked at me and very calmly said, “I think we better ease the rudder a bit.”
Many years later, at one of the ship’s reunions, I was speaking with that captain of long ago, Lloyd J. Wiltsie, now a retired vice-admiral, and I related that incident to him and asked if he remembered it. He not only remembered it but added a few other items, things that I had forgotten. Admiral Wiltsie, by the way, attended quite a few reunions until he died a few years ago.
In 1958 the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association was formed. For the past 53 years it has existed as a national organization with chapters in nearly every state in the country. A few months ago I spoke with the association’s president, William Muehleib, who had averred that there had to be some changes
Membership in the association was restricted to actual men in uniform, on the Island of Oahu, during the attack. Since the bulk of the present members were well up in years and many were having the usual maladies associated with those years, they were hard put to field a slate of officers, at the national or state level. The answer was, of course, to disband.
So at the end of this month the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association will be no more.
I have belonged to the association since its inception. I have attended a few annual conventions, at both the state and national levels. As I recall at each one of these I come away having met a few more interesting people and heard a few fresh tales, sea stories we call them.
Muehleib has stated that part of dissolution will be to transfer the association’s assets to Pacific Historic Parks, part of the National Parks Service. We understand that there will be periodic reunions and conventions at the Arizona Memorial. I don’t think I will attend any more.
It just won’t be the same.
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