Editor's note: This story was originally published Dec. 7, 2011.
In February 1941, newly minted Navy officer Fred Johnson heard about a potential assignment that sounded exotic to a Georgia country boy.
“They said they wanted some volunteers to go to this place nice and warm, and the duty was pretty good, and that sounded nice to me, so they sent me,” Johnson said.
The place was Pearl Harbor.
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Seventy years ago today, a startling announcement over his ship’s public address system hurtled Johnson into World War II. He had returned from a night on the town and had just gotten to sleep in his makeshift quarters on the USS Maryland when noises outside woke him up.
Then he heard the words that brought an end to the idyllic life he had enjoyed there, and they left no doubt about the seriousness of the situation.
“ ‘All hands to your battle station, this is no s---,’ ” Johnson recalled hearing. “That wasn’t the usual way of passing the word.”
He had just been transferred to the ship, and there wasn’t enough room for everyone, so he was sleeping in the ammunition room. Suddenly sailors rushed in to grab bullets. A communications officer, Johnson started running to his station in the superstructure of the admiral’s bridge.
“On the way, I could see those Japanese planes coming in low from the bay side,” he said. “The water was popping up like it was raining, except those were machine gun bullets striking the water.”
Memories still fresh
Johnson, 96, is a Macon resident, and one of a few Pearl Harbor survivors still living in Middle Georgia, along with Harvey Chase, 96, of Gray, and Bill Hill, 90, of Macon.
Until a couple of years ago, they had a Pearl Harbor Survivors chapter in Macon and met every year before the anniversary. But with the survivors’ numbers steadily declining, they disbanded the group last year. The national association also has declined to the point that it plans to surrender its charter to Congress, the local survivors said.
The three men witnessed the attack from three distinctly different perspectives.
Johnson had the best view from the Maryland, but there wasn’t anything he could do except watch. The admiral of the battleship fleet was on the Maryland, and Johnson’s job was to send communications to the other ships. The only message he was asked to send, however, was hours after the attack, when the belief was still high that more could be coming. The message was, “Keep on the alert.”
“He didn’t have to say that,” Johnson said. “We were alert.”
Two strokes of luck saved Johnson’s life. He had been stationed on the USS West Virginia, but was transferred to the Maryland two weeks before the attack. The West Virginia sank.
Also, the USS Oklahoma had moored against the Maryland on the bay side. The Oklahoma, which the Japanese sank, essentially protected the Maryland by taking the torpedoes. The Maryland survived with moderate damage, and only six crew members were killed. Because it was protected, crews on the Maryland were able to get all of its anti-craft positions firing.
“We would hit a plane every once in a while, and a big shout would go up,” Johnson said. He had been in the Navy long enough to know the sailor’s habit of using foul language, but that day his crew mates took it to a whole new level.
“If you listened closely, you would think there had never been a Japanese who was legitimately born,” he said.
Luck saves another survivor
Chase also survived the attack through a lucky break. His ship, the USS Schley, was in dock getting an overhaul. He was at home sound asleep with his wife when the attack started just before 8 a.m.
“We were awakened by explosions,” he said. “We saw billows of smoke coming from the Navy yard. I looked out the window, and I said ‘My god, Ellen, those are Japanese planes.’ ”
He then followed his standing orders in attack to return to his ship. It was of little use, however, since the ship was under repair and couldn’t get under way. The ship’s job was to protect the entrance of the harbor, so if it hadn’t been getting repairs, it would have been in the bay with the other ships, with Chase on it, when the attack occurred.
After getting to his ship, he was ordered to take cover anywhere he could find it. Some sailors tried to shoot at the planes with rifles, he said.
A different stroke of luck
For Hill, it could have been worse. Hill, who was in the Army, had the opportunity to go to either Pearl Harbor or the Philippines. The Macon native liked the idea of seeing life in another country, so he chose the Philippines. A recruiter, however, talked him out it by convincing him the Philippines duty would be much more strenuous.
The attack on Pearl Harbor coincided with the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Had Hill been there, he likely would have been killed or taken prisoner and forced on the infamous Bataan Death March.
“That man saved my life right there,” he said. “I didn’t know at the time, but he had a quota to get up for Hawaii, and he talked me into it, and I am thankful for it ever since.”
Hill was an artilleryman assigned to protect the north shore of Hawaii. He was several miles from Pearl Harbor but saw the first planes going over.
“We starting hearing this faint buzz way off in the distance, and instantaneously it just got louder and louder,” he said. “The first thing I knew it was right over us.”
His unit went to its position to protect the shore from invasion, but they never fired a shot.
“That was the first day of a 39-month camping trip for me,” he said.
Until the battle of Midway his unit remained at its position to defend the shore. He then went the South Pacific to retake islands from the Japanese, in which he saw heavy combat.
Although the three men had different experiences during the attack, they all said the same thing when asked what they most want people to know about Pearl Harbor.
“I would love for people to know that events similar to Pearl Harbor can happen again and will happen again if the United States ever lets its guard down,” Hill said.