Wednesday, December 7, 2011
A Day That Will Live in Infamy
Never forgetting: Stark memories 70 years after Pearl Harbor
Tuesday, December 6, 2011 Last updated: Wednesday December 7, 2011, 8:24 AM
BY JAY LEVIN
Navy radioman Andrew Myers, 18, had just gotten off watch on the light cruiser USS Helena on Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941. He was on his bunk getting ready for some shut-eye.
The Battleship Arizona toppling on Dec. 7, 1941, a day two North Jersey veterans can still recall in vivid detail.
Less than a mile away, Navy radioman John Walton, 27, was reading a newspaper while lying on his bunk at Ford Island Naval Air Station, in the middle of Pearl Harbor.
At 7:51, hell broke loose.
Japan’s attack 70 years ago claimed 2,400 American lives, sank or damaged 21 American ships, destroyed or damaged more than 300 American aircraft and thrust the nation into World War II.
A fraction of the 84,000 U.S. service members who were at Pearl Harbor are alive today to bear witness. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association counts 2,700 members, a number that grows smaller by the week. The November issue of the association’s quarterly newsletter, the Pearl Harbor-Gram, pays tribute to 44 members who’ve died. And the national president delivers the painful and "inevitable" news: The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association will be dissolved Dec. 31.
Andrew Myers, 88, of Closter and John Walton, 97, of Paterson are among the association’s dozen New Jersey members. Hale and hearty, these proud old sailors have never met, despite their proximity and shared experience.
In separate interviews, Myers and Walton spoke of their Navy years and of Dec. 7, 1941.
Chose Navy life
Both men enlisted in late 1940. Myers was a kid out of Theodore Roosevelt High in Yonkers. Walton, a product of Paterson’s Central High, was unmarried and working for Wright Aeronautical.
Walton joined the Navy because he figured the draft would get him, and he wanted no part of the Army.
"I didn’t like the Army. I was listening to these guys from World War I, and they were talking about trench warfare. They were fighting over there in France and living in a trench. And then this one guy who was in the Navy piped up, ‘When I was in the Navy I had a clean bed and a hot meal every night.’ And I said, ‘That’s for me!’ "
Myers enlisted with three goals in mind.
"I wanted to see the world, have a gal in every port and learn a trade."
Looking back, Myers said he saw part of the world — the Pacific Ocean part — and learned a trade: electronics.
What about the gal in every port?
Walton was sent to radio school in Connecticut, and Myers was sent to radio school in San Diego. Each wound up at Pearl Harbor in the summer of 1941 — Walton at Ford Island and Myers aboard the Helena.
On Dec. 7, a torpedo ripped into the Helena, taking out a boiler room and an engine room and jolting Myers. The general quarters alarm wailed.
"The ship went up about 6 feet, and it just oscillated. I thought, geez, a boiler must have blown up. I couldn’t imagine anything other than that. I thought, geez, I better get to my battle station, and I took off. I was passing on the deck, and guys were coming out all bloody, bleeding, black. And hysterical. I thought, holy geez, these guys are really hurt. And so I got on the main deck, and I heard machine-gun bullets. What the heck is this? I got into the radio room, which was in the superstructure, and the guy said, ‘We’re at war. We’re being hit by Japanese planes.’ "
Myers was one deck below where the torpedo made impact. Twenty-nine shipmates were killed.
"When the torpedo hit, there was this tremendous blast, and it went through all the passageways. So anybody who was in the path of the blast was burnt."
Walton’s barracks on Ford Island weren’t hit, but the explosions reverberating around the harbor were unmistakable.
"We heard this plane screaming. What’s going on? This is a Sunday! And then we started hearing the bombs going off. We went to the window and see this plane flying over our heads, with the red spots on it. It was probably dropping a bomb on the ol’ Utah out there. Somebody had the sense to say, ‘Better get down to the first floor.’ That’s when it all started for us."
Walton said he doesn’t remember being scared. Myers said he was too young to be scared.
"There were guys in the radio room who were married — they were scared. They seemed to show it. I didn’t have anybody. I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, so I didn’t have the worries they had."
Walton helped tend to the injured.
"We were in the mess hall on the first floor, and all of a sudden the guys were coming in from the battleships anchored off Ford Island. They were swimming from the battleships to land. They were full of oil, more in shock. We were helping take care of the poor guys from the battleships."
Walton, who served at Pearl Harbor with his younger brother William, said their family back in Paterson went without word about their safety.
"Nobody could send out phone calls or mail or nothing out of the base for two weeks. My family was going crazy. There were two of us there! The only satisfaction they got was when they called up their congressman and learned we weren’t on the casualty list."
Major action, minor injuries
Myers’ ship was patched up and went for dry dock repairs at California’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard. The Helena — with Myers on board — participated in a number of Pacific campaigns. A Japanese torpedo sank the Helena on July 6, 1943, during the Battle of Kula Gulf. Myers suffered cuts and bruises.
Afterward, Myers became an aviation radioman. He was in a bomber crash and cheated death once again. He climbed out of a hole in the side of plane and was picked up by Marines in a Higgins boat. His injuries? Cuts.
Walton was at Pearl Harbor until going on the seaplane tender USS Curtiss in spring 1942. He was on the Curtiss for a year. Then he became a radioman for a scout plane squadron in the Pacific. He survived Pearl Harbor and nearly four years at war with nary a scratch. "Pretty lucky, I guess," he said.
Walton was discharged in September 1945; Myers in February 1946. Walton went home to Paterson and became a city firefighter. Myers returned to Yonkers and got a job as a repairman with New York Telephone. He retired as an engineer and then sold real estate in Bergen County’s Northern Valley.
Myers was widowed in 1999, and Walton six months ago. Each lives independently and gets along and around just fine. Walton, a big, ruddy-faced man, keeps fit by gardening and going for walks in a cemetery. Myers, who wears a neat gray mustache, stays trim by taking his lady friend dancing.
Walton said that from time to time he thinks about Pearl Harbor and his Navy service in Hawaii.
"Every once in a while you lay in bed and go over it, I guess. You think about the fun you had, more than you think about the trouble out there."
"You were young … "
Walton hopes that terrible day 70 years ago stays in the nation’s consciousness.
"Schools don’t talk about it to the kids, and the papers don’t play it up, so people forget about it. But this year, they’re trying to revive it, or whatever. Bring it all back to life again."
Myers struggled for words to describe how Pearl Harbor, and World War II, shaped him.
"I don’t know. I’m just very appreciative of my good health, and I’m happy with the little things. I’m just so happy I’m able to walk. … The Navy was a great experience. I did learn a trade, it helped me get a good job – and it’s great if you come out in one piece."