“I Was There — at Pearl Harbor!”

My granddaughter, Christiana, is studying Pearl Harbor in school, so I took her to visit a hero of mine who was actually there on December 7, 1941, on board the USS Tennessee. George Westover, who attends The Donelson Fellowship, is ninty-five and one of our nation’s few surviving veterans of the attack at Pearl Harbor. He’s one of our favorite people at TDF, friendly and fatherly, and his memory of that day is as sharp as if it had happened yesterday. Here’s what he told Christiana and me.

The Tennessee was moored alongside the West Virginia and directly in front of the Arizona. Westover was Marine private, and his salary was 21-dollars a month, minus 80-cents for hospitalization. He was in and out of Pearl Harbor during 1941, and he loved being in Hawaii. It was peaceful, quiet, beautiful, and relaxing. He and his buddies could get a taxi into town for a dollar, which, by cramming five of them into the vehicle, would amount to 20-cents each, plus another nickel for the tip.

On Friday, December 5, 1941, Westover arrived back on his ship, the Tennessee, a half-hour late, at 8:30 pm. His liberty had been up at 8. So he was assigned punishment duty and had to paint his battle station on Saturday, December 6. He was done with the job that evening, although he failed to seal and stow his can of gray paint. He just left it sitting there.

The next morning, December 7, 1941, he woke up anticipating the day since it was a “Rope Yarn Sunday,” when sailors and Marines could relax aboard ship, reading and writing letters and getting haircuts and mending their socks, or whatever. Breakfast that morning was cold cuts, baked beans, and salad. After breakfast, George decided to sunbathe, so he put on his swimming trunks, got his blanket and book, and went to a sunny spot on deck to read.

He heard the sounds of explosions over on Ford Island and he and some others stood at the railing and looked in that direction. “This is a heck of a time to have a drill and not tell us anything about it,” they said among themselves. Suddenly the loud speakers sounded on the Tennessee: “All hands, man your battle stations. This is no drill. This is war!” George rushed back to his quarters, put on shirt, pants, and shoes, and returned to his place high on the ship. When he ran in, he knocked over the unattended can of paint, which made a mess and leaked onto the decks below. He had to man his station while sliding around in wet paint.

From his perch high on the ship, he saw the explosions all around him, and when the Japanese torpedo planes came over Ford Island, they came in very low to drop their torpedoes, and as they pulled up they flew right past him. When one particular plane flew past, he and the Japanese pilot seemed to lock eyes for a moment, and in his memory George can see the pilot with a grin or smirk on his face.

“When I was first interviewed about the events of that day,” he said, “I told the questioner that the situation was chaotic, but I’ve changed my view on that. Everyone did what we were trained to do. We went to our battle stations and responded as we were trained. It wasn’t chaos. We all did our jobs.”

“We knew at that moment it was world war. We knew that instantly. We did not think this was simply an attack; we thought it was an advance attack before a full invasion. We expected the attack to be followed up with a full-fledged invasion force. We thought Japanese land forces were waiting offshore preparing to seize the islands.”

He talked about how the oil on the waters caught fire with men trapped in the flames while trying to swim to safety. The bravest men at Pearl Harbor, he said, were the ones who went out in small boats to try to rescue these burning souls. “I won’t describe the injuries those men suffered,” he said. “It was terrible. Most of them died from their burns.”

“The next forty-eight hours we got very little sleep as we dealt with the damage, tended the wounded, and prepared for the expected invasion. We didn’t have any hot meals, but we had cold cuts and lots and lots of coffee, which was made in huge drums.”

I’m posting this blog especially for Christiana, who, I think, will always remember the day she met a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor–December 7, 1941.