Before 9/11/01 there was 12/7/41.
Soon, the country will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of what was, in President Roosevelt’s words, the most dastardly act ever perpetrated against the United States in its short history. Volumes have been written about December 7th, 1941, but nothing quite captures an event like a first-hand account. Let me try to take you back there now.
I had the privilege to know one of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” A man who was directly involved in that historical day. My father-in-law, Robin E. “Bob” Larson, was a naval aviator stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1941. A young Ensign, commissioned only 4 months prior, he was navigator pilot on the crew of a PBY-5 seaplane and was flying search and rescue patrols along the island chain. He had already proven to be so astute at open water navigation that the other pilots had already tagged him with the nickname “Magellan.”
Magellan was there that day, literally front and center in a panorama of grinding, twisting steel, catastrophic explosions and rising pillars of fire and smoke. His eyes grudgingly yet unerringly taking in the horrid scene unfolding before him. His nostrils quickly succumbing to the foul scent of burning flesh. His ears reverberating with the cacophonous chorus of shrieks and screams. All the sights, smells and sounds that invariably accompany the violent end of life. But there was no time to dwell on it. He was busy keeping himself alive. He had a job to do.
After a long night watch, Magellan was unexpectedly awakened at 7:55 a.m. in his bed at the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters (BOQ) on Ford Island. Startled by the shrill whistling of a Japanese dive bomber seeking its prey, followed seconds later by the ear-splitting detonation signaling the successful destruction of the USS Utah, mere yards from where he slept. Almost simultaneously, he began dressing himself and choreographing his way through the pandemonium that immediately prevailed. Eventually, he made his way out of the BOQ and hitched a ride with other stunned pilots on a flat-bed truck that had been commandeered to ferry them to their aircraft at the other end of Ford Island. Men who only the night before were envisioning a pleasurable Sunday afternoon spent sunning on Waikiki beach. But now here they were, sitting exposed on that truck, their legs dangling over the side, while all hell was breaking loose around them.
The gauntlet he would run between the BOQ and the hangars would have been sufficient drama for any man for a lifetime. But it was just the prologue. At intervals, he had to stop, jump off, then get under the truck to avoid the Japanese Emperor’s deadly calling cards, courtesy of the fighters that were strafing the island. Magellan was getting to know the perils of war well before his inaugural combat flight. In a surreal moment in the midst of all of this mayhem, one of the pilots suddenly provided some totally unexpected “gallows” humor. He had just purchased a brand new Ford and blurted out “If they put so much as a dent in that car, I will kill those Japs.” At one point, as Magellan was about to get back on the truck after a strafing run, he was knocked to the ground by a terrific blast. That marked the last vital moment of one of the proudest members of the Pacific Fleet, the USS Arizona and over 1000 of her sailors.
At long last, arriving at the hangar area, the carnage that greeted him was unimaginable. Two battleships, set afire and sinking, were so close that he could see the expressions of horror on the sailors as they faced an excruciating decision. Whether to stay aboard a crippled ship rife with acrid, deadly smoke or jump overboard into a cauldron of burning oil. Out on the tarmac only three of the 12 new PBY-5 seaplanes were operable after the precision bombing run of the well-trained Japanese. Patchwork crews were now assembling and loading weapons aboard, most never conceived for use on a flying boat. That didn’t matter, he was off to sink the Japanese fleet! Magellan found himself ejecting unwanted personnel off his aircraft. Everyone wanted to get aboard to “get back at those bastards,” but the additional weight would have kept the plane from getting up. In a rare moment of clarity, Magellan gave one of the ground crew his wallet and a few comments to pass on to his bride-to-be back in Iowa. The prospect of survival on this mission did not rank very high in his mind.
But the most daunting challenge was yet to come. Getting airborne. Traveling down the channel, his craft and pilot had the unenviable task of getting adequate airspeed on the water while avoiding the obstacle course of debris that was quickly gathering atop the waves. If that wasn’t enough, smoking oil slicks from stricken ships were starting to coat much of the harbor. A beautiful sunny morning was now looking more like the devilish dark of night. And what would be their reward for a successful takeoff? If they got airborne and made it back, they would get to navigate these same hazards upon their return. As they were attempting to take off, a tremendous explosion shook their craft. Out of the cockpit window, off to the left, they saw the USS Shaw erupting like a volcano in one of the more spectacular moments ever captured on film.
But get airborne they did. They immediately flew due west to exact the revenge that they thought was their destiny. Except for one thing. The Japanese attack had duped everyone by launching from the north. As Bob was later to say to me, I would be someone else’s son-in-law if they had headed in the right direction that fateful morning. Small wonder, as he was sadly over-matched in his lumbering PBY, a plane not meant for the zealous charge he was undertaking.
Ironically, there was to be one more real, yet ignominious threat to Magellan’s well-being that day. Shell-shocked and disconcerted, the anti-aircraft batteries around the harbor assumed that any inbound aircraft was the enemy. Identification codes proved confusing and all but useless. A more user-friendly method was extemporaneously devised. It was promulgated to all commands that a plane was to bank in a certain manner when coming in over Diamond Head crater. That would indicate if it was friend or foe. Magellan’s plane banked correctly and thus avoided being one of several American aircraft that were shot down by friendly fire. Uneventfully and unceremoniously, they landed. The assault on Pearl Harbor was over.
Magellan went on to be involved at great risk in a large number of the battles zones in the Pacific during the next 3 1/2 years. You’d recognize the names. Names like Midway, Guadalcanal, Saipan and Iwo Jima. I remember going with him to the movie “Midway” back in the 70’s and Bob’s reaction when, in the movie, one of the scout planes sent the message “Sighted many Jap planes headed to Midway”. This was the message, verbatim, that Bob himself had relayed back from his patrol plane to the American carriers at the outset of the battle. What an emotional recollection that must have been.
If you have any interest, I am posting a link to an incident that happened later in the war. During a rescue mission, Magellan’s plane crashed during takeoff and sunk. The article is short and matter of fact, but you can easily imagine yourself out there on that rippling sea as that plane was going down. It’s the 6th article on the list, Oct 30th, 1944. What it won’t tell you is that he ordered every one of his crew to stay aboard until the injured army man they had just picked up was safely evacuated. http://www.vpnavy.com/vp23_mishap.html
One of the highlights of my life was attending the 50th anniversary ceremonies of Pearl Harbor survivors with Bob, my wife and her mother. While there, we were fortunate to attend a speech given by another WWII naval aviator. He was no Magellan, but he had also made a sort of name for himself. His name was President George H.W. Bush.
Bob passed away in 2003, but I know if he were here, he would dismiss the talk about “Magellan’s” exploits and ask instead that we honor the ones that died that awful day without a fighting chance. I, for one, intend to do just that.
**All non-personal pictures via Google Images**
Reblogged this on The Cvillean and commented:
December 7th, 1941
Every 5th anniversary of Pearl Harbor (This is the 80th) I repost this article about my father-in-law. I hope my new readers find his experience interesting and for those who have read it already, a reminder of how the greatest generation saved our country:
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Beautiful tribute to your your father in law Al and an awesome retelling of his story that fateful day. I felt like I was there. Cool pics too.
Glad you got to read it, Tricia. It’s meant for patriots like yourself!
We Patriots have to stick together! Of course I’m also a New England Patriots fan but that’s a whole different discussion….;)
Boo! (Spoken by a long suffering Eagles fan).
Ha! Well you did have a win yesterday anyway.Grrr…;)
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Brilliantly written, a great reselling if that day, and what amazing photos both from your own collection and google. Amazing that the Japanese took those photos of the first strike!
How amazing it must have been for Bob to hear his own words in the film!
I’m not surprised he found it hard to talk about that day. Nowadays we know about PTSD and the effects such an event would have had on the survivors. We expect people experiencing this type of event to need counselling. Then they lived alone with the nightmares. The easiest way to cope was to suppress the memories as much as they could. What good would talking about it do? Well done for getting him to share his memories with you!
Thanks, Barbara. This always evokes emotions for me.
It is amazing how quickly a nation forgets. Unless people like you write down memories of these events, they will be consigned to facts and dates in history books. How many people would compare the strike on Pearl Harbour to 9/11, but they were as dreadful as each other.
What a wonderful way to honor your FIL. Thank you so much for the heads up and reading my blog about my father.
Thanks. You have a real treasure in all those letters.
I feel blessed and grateful. I just hope Dad would be proud.
Thank you for leading me back here, Big Al. I had read it before, but it was well worth a second read.
Thanks, Viv. Glad I could return the favor of your memoir.
What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing his personal story in such great detail. I could almost hear the sounds and feel the shock and fear he must have felt.
Hi again, Susanne. Sorry I forgot to comment on this when you sent it. Thank you for reading. It was something I had to drag out of him.
My Dad enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Habor, He was a Seabee in the Pacific theatre, My Mom graduated nursing school and joined the Navy in 1942. After 54 years of marriage my Mom passed away on September 11, 2001. My Dad said “I am glad she did not have to hear the news today. Once in a lifetime is enough.”
Thanks for sharing that Gail. Both your parents were true patriots. As a seabee, I would bet your dad was present at many famous WWII venues. Thanks also for the visit.
Hi Al. I’m Peg’s sister and my husband and I attended the 65th anniversary at Pearl Harbor with my in-laws. My father in-law is John Wilberding, from Shepherd, MI, probably one of the last Pearl Harbor survivors in MI. Each of Ella and John’s 7 children returned to Hawaii with their folks over the years to see and experience that fateful day. It was very sobering and interesting to learn about history first hand and with a survivor of that fateful day.
John was in the Air Corps and at Wickham Field when the strafing began. He has just left Sunday mass and says that if he hadn’t gone to mass he might not have survived that morning.
Ella died last December at 91 years young and John struggles being alone after 65 years of marriage. He was interviewed in the local paper and was on TV today. It was quite the experience going with them for what will probably be the last time visiting Hawaii, which they both loved. Nicely done.
Hi Terry. So glad you visited. I know how much it must have meant to your husband and you to join them on that trip. I know that Hickam took a real beating that day so he is very lucky. It’s a special place and events that day will still be talked about for many, many generations to come. It will be a shame when we no longer have veterans like John to praise. I hope for the best for your father-in-law as he copes with his loss.
I sure have fun bantering with Peg. She’s a neat gal. Thanks again for the comment.
This is such a heartwarming tribute to a humble soldier who said he was just doing his duty. Glad you got the opportunity to speak to him and put this tribute together. It’s priceless and more meaningful because it is a personal account from someone who was actually there in the midst of it.
Thank you for taking the time to write it.
Thanks Barb. And thanks for visiting my blog.
AN amazing account of that horrible day and the personal dimension makes it all the more gripping
Thanks, Ducks. There’s a lot of survivors back there today telling more gripping stories I’m sure.
What a wonderful writer you are, Al. How lucky you were to be able to hear the story and create the details…from Bob himself. Thank you for this beautiful tribute.
Thank you, Cindy. I worked harder by far on this blog than any of the others. It was eerie walking the same steps he did that day as he told his story.
Wonderful memorial Al. I know you were proud to be at the ceremony at Pearl.
My FIL Herman Johnston fought in the battle on Iwo Jima and several other places before that. His younger brother Jim was at Guadalcanal. Herman had 3 battle stars on his uniform. Last year, when Herman died, my son Richard as the oldest son of the oldest son inherited the uniform for his little son Jacob. Richard’s great-grandmother, Matilda Shew Johnston, commissioned the U.S.S. Papago in the Charleston harbor in 1944, I believe. She was honored because she had 8 sons in uniform (3 marines, 2 Navy and 2 Army), and a ninth working for the Navy in Norfolk as a civilian. Thoughtful of you to remember all those who went before even if others don’t.
Thanks, Diane. Bob came very close to dying at Iwo Jima. He was there to fly supplies in and out. They had to stay over one night and everyone in the foxhole next to his was killed by a suicide attacker in the dark of night. It was fate that they didn’t pick his.
You have some storied history in your family. Fascinating!
Great story, Al. I have walked all those places as a teenager: Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, The Arizona. Even though my mom’s birthday was December 7th, I didn’t realize the significance of the history around me until much later. I appreciate it now. I loved your tribute, and I loved the research and photos you put into it.
Thanks, Lori. My wife (Patty Hood below) lived there with her dad and mom twice. The yard of their house on Ford Island backed up to the Arizona Memorial. It was fun reliving her childhood memories with her.
Oh Al, what an amazing story, and what a brave man. I got cold shivers when Bob heard his own words in the movie.
I would like to reblog this, if you don’t mind?
Please do Tilly Bud, and thanks.
Thanks. It will be up later today.
Well done, Al. I went to Peal Harbor and it was quite a site to see.
An odd thing, Lorna. we were there before in 1969 while they were filming Tora, Tora, Tora! I stood outside on the hillside while “Japanese” planes were attacking a fake anchorage across the bay. It wasn’t hard to let your imagination go wild.
Al, I saw this comment and had to say we were stationed and lived on Pearl when Hollywood made the film Tora Tora Tora. It was eeirie. We drove up the middle of the island (Hickam?) where the Japanese fighter planes were kept and watched them take off and land. We also saw the big transport planes (C-17) flown in from the mainland for the film. A real museum experience. Dianne
Wasn’t it amazing, Dianne? I joked with my wife saying “oh no, here we go again!”
Marvelously told. My uncle was there that day too. He died several years ago and I regret never sitting down with him to hear his tale. This is priceless. Thanks for sharing it.
Don’t feel too bad. It was like pulling teeth to get Bob to tell us the details of that terrible day, so typical of that generation. Going with him to the 50th helped immensely.
Fortunately, we finally got him to write a memoir just before he died which contains many other notable war stories.
What a riveting account of a moment that changed history. Thank you for telling this story so eloquently.
Thanks, Peg. I tried to do justice to a hero who never questioned his duty to his country.
Al, my sister was at Pearl Harbor for the 50th with her father-in-law, who was also there that fateful day. Wonder if the vets knew one another – small world.
Very small world. We met a 57-year old lady that was a child of 7 living in the house closest to the USS Tennessee. With tears streaming down her face, she told of seeing burning sailors jumping overboard. At the time, we were standing exactly where she was standing with her mother that day.
My father never talked about his war experiences when I was growing up. I have to thank Al, my husband, for asking the questions that enabled me to know this part of his life. Patty Hood
What a beautiful tribute to your father-in-law. Reading about what our military personnel go through always makes me grateful and proud.
Thanks Big Al.
It was an honor to do it, Jodi.