Pearl Harbor survivors recall the attack


Daily Journal Corinth Bureau

The attack on Pearl Harbor came without warning on that Sunday morning 62 years ago today, catching thousands of U.S. military personnel based in Honolulu, Hawaii, still in bed.

After attending a dinner dance, Okolona native William M. Hodges had spent Saturday night on a friend's couch, expecting to continue a weekend of fun at the beach the next day.

It was not to be.

At 7:55 a.m., when the first flight of Japanese planes flew over, Ensign Hodges was still wearing the tuxedo from the night before.

There was no time to change, and he went into battle wearing his dinner jacket, black tie and striped pants.

Harold T. Johnson of Booneville, now 87, had celebrated six years in the Navy and returned to quarters 45 minutes late from liberty the night of Dec. 6, 1941.

He was asleep in his bunk on the U.S.S. San Francisco when the first bombs dropped.

“Sunday was the only morning that you had a chance to sleep in,” said Johnson,

Dead in the water

A heavy cruiser in Pearl Harbor for a major overhaul, the San Francisco CA38 was tied up at Pier 21 out of commission.

“We had been in for a couple of weeks, therefore we kept no oil on board and all the fuel and ammunition was taken off during the overhaul,” Johnson said. “We would have gone down like a lead pellet had we gotten hit because all the tanks were open.”

With constant noise on board from regular artillery practice, Johnson initially did not believe his buddy, “a big old Swede,” who screamed, “The Japs are bombing us. I swear to God.”

“It was calmer than you would think,” said Johnson, who dressed and ran down to the bilges to get the cruiser back into action.

Some of his crew mates went on deck to help rescue people in the water, sailors from destroyed carriers.

The Rising Sun

The Japanese planes flew over the duplex where Hodges was staying, but he didn't know they were enemy aircraft until he saw the Rising Sun emblems painted on them.

If he had known and had been carrying a rifle, he could have gone in the street and shot some down, Hodges said.

Instead, he ran to the pier where boats docked to take crews to their ships. As he was waiting for the next boat to arrive, a torpedo ran up the shore nearby.

It was a dud; otherwise, Hodges said he would not have been around to tell about it.

The torpedo's rear propeller was still revolving as he boarded the boat and headed toward the U.S.S. West Virginia, which had been hit by six or seven torpedoes in the first bomber attack.

His ship was listing badly. Because the water was filled with oil, the boat could not reach the West Virginia. Hodges swam through the oil to report for duty. Luck was with him again, because the oil later caught on fire.

The West Virginia sank at its mooring and was raised and returned to the fleet in 1944.

Time line

The first target was hit at 7:55 a.m. Pearl Harbor time, and by 9:45 a.m. it was all over.

American vessels Utah and Oklahoma were sunk. Among their casualties were many of Hodges' classmates from the U.S. Naval Academy.

Congress declared war on Japan on Monday, Dec. 8, 1941. One day later, Germany, Italy and Japan declared war on the United States.

Six months after the attack, Johnson and his shipmates enjoyed sweet revenge on the Japanese fleet. In June 1942 at Midway, U.S. forces sunk four of the six ships Japan had used to launch the assault on Hawaii, Johnson said.

A boiler man, Johnson enlisted in the Navy after graduating from a rural South Carolina high school in 1935.

From the 7th grade when he saw his first motion picture, “The Fleet's In” with James Cagney, Johnson knew what he wanted to do. “I made up my mind to go Navy and I never changed it,” he said.

For his service in World War II, he earned 15 major battle stars. His ship was the first one to get a Presidential Unit Citation.

Johnson served on seven ships and spent the last three years of his 22-year Navy career as a recruiter. He retired as a chief petty officer.

Hodges, now 87 and living in Oak Harbor, Wash., went to flight school in 1942 and got his wings in November 1943. He retired with the rank of captain after 25 years in the Navy.

Hodges and Johnson are among the few Pearl Harbor survivors still alive.

Walter Chandler of Okolona suggested Hodges as a subject for this story:

“I was 15 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and I soon heard that Hodges, who had lived across the street from me, was there. With him now 87 years old, I wanted to honor his service on Pearl Harbor Day, 2004.”

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