Remembering the first fallen of Pearl Harbor

egris@macon.comDecember 6, 2012 

George Vining never went to war.

War came to him.

He never did see the sun rise across the harbor on the Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941. He was working in the mess hall aboard the USS California.

The 20-year-old Macon man, however, probably did hear the roar of the approaching planes over the clanging of pots and pans at breakfast.

Vining was a Navy petty officer second class. His job was listed as a mess management specialist. That’s a fancy name for kitchen help. It was his job to clear away the dishes, cups and silverware.

He definitely heard the sirens, and he rushed port side to his assigned battle station. As one of the 20 African-American enlisted men aboard the California -- all of them mess attendants -- it was his duty to help pass the ammunition to the gunners on the deck.

The California was the flagship along “Battleship Row” in Pearl Harbor. It was on the front line of the first attack wave. It was pounded by six bombs from Japanese fighters and took three torpedo hits from their torpedo planes.

Vining was one of the 98 men who died on the California. Another 61 were wounded.

Japan’s surprise attack, which led to America’s entry into World War II, left 2,402 dead and 1,282 wounded. The California was one of four Navy battleships that were sunk. A dozen other ships were damaged, and 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed.

Vining was a large man in stature, but he was also quiet. He often stuttered when he spoke. His middle name was Eugene, after his father, who died in 1922 when Vining was a baby. Eugene Vining was a World War I veteran who never fully recovered from his war injuries.

Perhaps that is why Vining enlisted. After attending L.H. Williams Elementary and Ballard High School, he joined the Navy. He had a sense of adventure and loved to travel. He was sent to basic training in Norfolk, Va., before receiving orders to report to Pearl Harbor, where about 60,000 military personnel were stationed.

I thought about Vining last Friday after a memorial service was held for Pearl Harbor survivor Bill Hill.

On this day 71 years ago, Hill was lying in his bunk at the Schofield Barracks at Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, the peaceful dawn was interrupted by explosions. The sky was swarming with Japanese planes.

Hill, who grew up at the Methodist Home for Children and Youth in Macon, lived to see another sunrise. He spent 20 years in the Army and later served as vice chairman of the Georgia Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

He died the Saturday before Thanksgiving. He was 90. His death means 97-year-old Fred Johnson is now the only Pearl Harbor survivor in Macon. There are 19 left in Georgia. Johnson taught at Lanier Junior High and was principal at Alexander IV Elementary and Willingham High School.

Vining is a more than just footnote to a war that claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans in the deadliest military conflict in history.

He was the first person from Macon to lose his life in World War II. There are 303 Bibb County residents listed as WWII casualties at the Veterans Memorial Monument outside the Macon Coliseum.

It took a long time for his hometown to acknowledge it, though. It was nearly five months before his death was announced in The Macon Telegraph. His name was listed at the bottom of a story about three local war casualties that appeared on May 5, 1942.

It would be more than two years after the war ended before his body was returned to Macon for burial at the request of his mother, Janie Brown Vining. (Like others, most of those who died at Pearl Harbor were buried in Hawaii.)

The flag-draped casket arrived by train at the Terminal Station on Oct. 21, 1947. It was met by a delegation that included Macon Mayor Charles Bowden and J. Hamilton Napier, commander of the U.S. Naval Reserves in Macon.

Vining is buried at Macon’s historic Linwood Cemetery in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood where, on an autumn day 20 years later, one of Macon’s most famous soldiers was also laid to rest.

Rodney Davis, the city’s only Medal of Honor recipient, died in Vietnam on a September afternoon in 1967. The young Marine sergeant threw himself on a grenade, saving the lives of other men in his company.

Two men who died with Vining on the California -- chief radio man Thomas Reeves and machinist’s mate 1st Class Robert R. Scott -- were both posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism. Reeves helped organize the delivery of anti-aircraft ammunition by hand after the equipment used to lift it to the guns was damaged. Scott refused to leave his battle station, even as the ship flooded.

The two men had destroyer Escorts named in their honor -- the U.S.S. Scott and the U.S.S. Reeves. Davis was the first black Vietnam veteran to have a ship named in his honor -- the Navy frigate U.S.S. Rodney Davis.

Vining never had a ship named after him, but his hometown did remember his service and supreme sacrifice. In the late 1940s, the Vining-Goodman American Legion Post 501 was dedicated to both him and Robert Goodman, another black serviceman who died in the war. (The post is no longer in existence.)

The Vining Heights neighborhood, which includes Vining Circle, is named after Vining. The subdivision is bounded by Anthony Road, Pio Nono Avenue and Mercer University Drive.

On Pearl Harbor Day nine years ago, the Marine Corps League, Middle Georgia Detachment 970, placed a bronze memorial at Vining’s grave at Linwood Cemetery, where he is buried next to his mother.

And today, the anniversary of a day President Franklin Roosevelt promised would “live in infamy,” we should pause to remember Vining and others who died in service to our country.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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