Local veterans remember Pearl Harbor

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OCEAN CITY — On the 70th anniversary of the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, four local Veterans gathered to reflect on the sudden and deliberate strike that propelled America into World War II.

Charlie Palermo, John Miller, Bob French and Ed Johnson said the war was inevitable. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was determined to tame an aggressive Imperial Japan; they would be part of the game plan.

Japan’s surprise strike took the lives of 2,402 Americans and wounded 1,282 others. Dec. 7, 1941 was, Roosevelt said, a “date which will live in infamy.”

“I was 21, working in Washington, D.C. for Safeway as a butcher,” Palermo said. “We heard it on the radio. Right away, all of the government buildings had soldiers, with fixed bayonets, guarding them.”

“President Roosevelt gave the ‘day of infamy’ talk,’” French said. “We were incensed that the Japanese could do that to us.”

“We anticipated a war,” Miller said. “I was 20 years old; we knew what was coming.”

Johnson, the youngest of the quartet at 86, was 16 on that Sunday.

“It was similar to 9/11, you didn’t want to believe it,” he said.

Unlike the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Japanese attack was not broadcast around the world on television. News came from the radio and newspapers.

“It was unreal, you didn’t want to believe it, but unfortunately it was true,” Johnson said.

The “war to end all wars,” World War I drained the nation’s patience, resulting in a catastrophic reduction in US military strength and readiness.

“The general mood of the country was not pro-war,” Johnson said. “People were very mixed about our involvement. People wanted America to supply the British with the means to fight, but not the soldiers. People were tired of war.”

French, however, enlisted in the Navy.

“I had never been in airplane, but I wanted to be a fighter pilot,” he said. Eighteen months later, the newly minted naval aviator headed to the Pacific.

“We lost a lot of battles in the beginning of the war,” French said.

He said it took a long time to get the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines ready for battle.

“We were so proud when we got our navy wings. The training was tough; so many had washed out. War took a heavy toll. The losses were great. We lost almost every battle early on.”

French flew to Hawaii from California for his first mission.

“We had just enough gas for the 22-hour flight,” he said. “Some of my squadron ran out of gas at the ends of the runways. If we’d had a headwind, we would’ve lost the whole squadron.”

French was in battles across the Pacific; including Pelelui, a terrible loss for the Marines. Palermo, a Marine, was severely wounded in the battle, one of four big battles he survived.

“I lost a lot of buddies,” he said.

Miller lived in Hammonton in 1941, summering in Ocean City. He decided to enlist in the Army as Roosevelt announced a push to guard the shorelines.

“He realized we were vulnerable, he wanted it built up fast. He thought there could be a problem with espionage.

“The Coast Guard needed me,” Miller said. “Before I knew it, I was raising my right hand and in a uniform. The next day I was armed and securing the ports. We secured the boats and made sure they were safe.”

Meanwhile, Johnson remained in Ocean City.

“I was too young to enlist,” Johnson said. “A lot of things changed. We went to ‘war time,’ everything went two hours ahead to save electricity. We went to school in the dark. We had a black out the following summer. The lights along the boardwalk were painted black.”

Tourism was almost nonexistent.

“You had two hours at night, it got dark at 10:30,” he said. “There was a curfew. There were armed lookouts on the roof of the Music Pier.”

With so many young men enlisted, the volunteer fire department was wiped out.

“So we volunteered,” he said. “My dad and I were volunteers. When the alarm would go off, we’d have to leave school.

“You could stand on the boardwalk and see the convoys six miles off shore. The boats were going north and south, there were hundreds of ships to guard against Japanese torpedoes.”

French’s father, Ed French, was one of several volunteers who walked the boardwalk around the clock, on lookout.

“A lot of the ships sank, and we had oil coming up along the beaches,” Johnson said. “We had apartments, and all of the apartments had a pot of kerosene to wash your feet off. Everybody got oil on their feet from the ocean.

“There was a big worry about the Japanese attacking the West Coast, and there were worries about the East Coast, too.”

Johnson did not graduate from Ocean City High School; instead he enlisted in the Navy’s V12 program that took him to North Carolina.

“I was in an officer training program at 17,” he said. “My brother Scott was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I had planned on going there too; I just got started a little early. I was a commissioned officer at 19.”

French said war was “hell.” He talked about the sinking of the Indianapolis in July 1945.

“That was something, the greatest loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy,” he said.

Shortly after delivering critical parts to a U.S. airbase in Tinian, for what would be the first atomic bomb utilized in combat, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine.

“It sank in 12 minutes!” French said; 300 sailors out of a crew of 1,196 went down with the ship.

The Navy learned of the sinking when survivors were spotted four days later by the crew of a PV-1 Ventura on routine patrol.

“I was on one of the three planes that came to rescue them,” French said. “It was the worst thing I ever saw. It’s hard to even think about it; the biggest loss to the Navy in the whole war. We had to travel a long distance to get to them.

“We saw great white sharks, circling,” he said. “It was a horrible, horrible scene. The sharks were 22 feet long! The ship sank at midnight and most of the guys were in bed.

“Only 316 sailors survived,” French said.

The Indianapolis, he noted, was the last major U.S. Navy ship sank by enemy action in the war.

“The Armistice was signed not long after that.”

French returned to Ocean City with a new bride, his late wife, Marie, to find out that 22 of his classmates died in the war.

“My father took me to Veteran’s Field,” he said. “Working with the Rotary Club, he made 22 white crosses and planted a holly tree in memory of each of them. I cried.”

The veterans say there are lessons to be learned from World War II.

“It was an unbelievable time in our history,” Miller said. “We were divided when the war began, once they bombed us, we were one. Everyone was dedicated to one thing, winning the war. The women were working: Rosie the Riveter.”

“We started fighting back. A Japanese admiral said, ‘I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.’ He knew the capacity this nation had to win that war,” Johnson said.

“There was a scene in the movie ‘The Longest Day,’ about the war. They captured a soldier, who had a birthday cake,” he said. “The enemy said, ‘Think of the capacity the U.S. has if they can ship a birthday cake across the ocean.’ We were a force to be reckoned with.”

“When Pearl Harbor happened, we were a manufacturing nation,” Miller said. “We manufactured clothing, we had mills, U.S. Steel, it was very odd to have imports. We made everything.

“Today, what would happen if we were hit?” he asked. “It all went away. We will have a big problem if we have a catastrophe. We turned all of our plants into manufacturing for the war. We were rolling out tanks and ships. We had a huge capacity.”

“Anyone in favor of having a war is out of their mind,” Johnson said. “Anyone who won’t fight for freedom doesn’t deserve it. We have forgotten what we fought for, defending this nation from extinction in World War II. We came very close to losing our freedom. All we have today is government trying to take our freedom away.”

 

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