Pearl Harbor: ‘A date which will live in infamy’

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – For most of us, the attack on Pearl Harbor is ancient history – seemingly as remote as its mid-Pacific location and its 71-years-ago timeframe. For a dwindling few, the memory of that news is still tangible.
Four residents at the Mississippi State Veterans Home in Oxford offered their remembrances. James Pannell of Pine Grove, Charles Demetrio of Memphis, Edward Gardner of Washington, Mo., and Ralph Hutchins of Big Creek were not at Pearl Harbor, but they all shared the shock and profound change that the whole nation experienced.
What stands stark in each man’s memories is that long-ago reality that the United States had been shoved into the thick of global hostilities.
Pannell said, “We heard it on the radio. It was going to be war.”
Charles Demetrio of Memphis was already a soldier, en route to South America, where he was to be a hospital pharmaceutical technician.
“We heard about it aboard the troop ship,” he said. “This meant we were in the war.”
Edward Gardner was a high school student in Washington, Mo. His family didn’t have a radio, so it was the next day at school that he heard the news.
“Our superintendent had the radio on, and that’s when President Roosevelt declared war on Germany and Japan and their allies,” he said.
For Ralph Hutchins of Big Creek, the attack was close to home.
“A classmate of mine, Creston Bounds, had joined the Navy and was on the USS Oklahoma,” he recalled. Bounds was in the ship when it rolled in the fiery water but tapped on the hull and was rescued through a hole cut in the hull.
Hutchins recalled that even for folks who weren’t facing the draft, the declaration of war was immediately sobering.
“The churches were full of people the next Sunday,” he said.
The four men had vastly different experiences in the war. Pannell became a tank operator, fighting his way across Europe.
“I was scared every time,” he said.
Demetrio said he spent most of the war working at the military hospital in Recife, Brazil, along with some later assignments that he still can’t disclose.
“I never carried a gun,” he said.
Two years into the war, Gardner joined the Merchant Marine – an assignment that, while not technically military, was so risky that its members were given military status and benefits.
His ships often hauled ammunition, and while he escaped the attacks that sank thousands of other merchant vessels, he did witness the destruction by U-boat of two tankers near his ship. A last-minute reassignment kept him out of a convoy that ended up losing the vast majority of its vessels.
“Fifty ships left New York, and four got through to Russia,” Gardner said. “The rest of them got sunk.”
Hutchins was tasked with supplying ordnance to soldiers on the front lines of Pacific island battles. He often used hand grenades to make impromptu foxholes and once saw a submarine near his transport ship, but he returned home safely after the war.
“Jesus promised me that,” he said.
Pearl Harbor was one of those rare fulcrums on which history pivots. Gardner recalled realizing that as soon as Roosevelt began addressing Congress.
“We knew everything had changed,” he said.
errol.castens@journalinc.com