For Utah vets, Pearl Harbor memories still vivid
Twenty-one times the bell tolled, once for each Utah serviceman who gave his life defending his country during the surprise Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor 67 years ago.
It was a quiet Sunday morning on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes suddenly appeared in the sky over the U.S. Navy's Hawaiian base, bombing and torpedoing most of America's Pacific fleet in an attack that would draw the country into World War II.
For the Utahns who survived the attack, memories of that day are still vivid -- the carnage on Battleship Row where the USS Arizona burned, the bravery of their comrades who fought back and others who rose up in quiet valor against the assault.
Utahn Bob Pierce, of Providence, nursing a broken ankle from a baseball game, was outside the base hospital and on his way to church when he saw the first Japanese plane overhead.
"At first, I thought it was a mock attack," Pierce said, addressing a small crowd that had gathered Sunday for the annual memorial service held by the Utah chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. "It quickly became apparent, though, that wasn't the case."
One memory stands out for him. It is the image of the hospital's nurses who were housed in a Quonset hut near the hospital. As the sound of exploding bombs thundered all around, the nurses began spilling out of the hut's doors.
"They were all in a tizzy and didn't know what to do," Pierce said, adding that just a few minutes later the first flat-bed truck showed up with wounded. " The moment they saw the bodies, everything changed. They didn't hesitate a moment. They knew what needed to be done."
Lawrence Smethurst, of Roy, had just left the USS San Francisco to catch a bus to church when the attack began. The heavy cruiser was undergoing repairs, was partially dismantled and as a result didn't have any ammunition aboard for its big guns.
Returning to the ship, Smethurst ran into the ship's black mess sergeant. "He told me, 'You get down there and get one of those rifles.' " Along with many others aboard the San Francisco, Smethurst fought the Japanese at Pearl Harbor with a 30.06.
Aboard the light cruiser USS Helena, Earl Underwood, of Salem, made it to a 50-caliber machine gun and began firing at the attackers overhead. Two of his best friends were with him at his post, and both were killed when a Japanese plane strafed the ship.
Serving aboard the USS Hulbert, Marion Kesler, of Salt Lake City, was standing on the quarter deck when the bombs began to fall. He immediately ran down to the galley where the crew was eating breakfast with the news that Pearl Harbor was under attack. "They didn't believe me at first," he said. "It took them a little while to be convinced."
The Hulbert was one of the first ships in the fleet to open fire on the Japanese. "We're credited with bringing down the first plane," Kesler said, indicating he spent the battle hauling ammunition up to the ship's 50-caliber machine guns.
USS Arizona survivor Ken Potts, Provo, said he has a difficult time talking about Pearl Harbor and the friends he lost. The 1,177 men who went down with that battleship when an armor-piercing bomb ignited a million pounds of gunpowder below decks represented nearly half the American casualties that day.
For Ralph Wadley, a Salt Lake resident who was serving in the U.S. Army on Pearl Harbor's Ford Island, each December 7th is a time to remind others of the Pearl Harbor Survivor's Association motto, "Remember Pearl Harbor -- Keep America Alert!" It also is a time to remember those who gave their lives for their country and those who served and have now passed on.
"We lost two more of our members this past year," said Wadley, who was the master of ceremonies at the memorial service. Ralph Schweppe, who served on the USS Tennessee, passed away April 25, 2008. He was 91. Reverend John Hornok, of the USS St. Louis, died Aug. 3. He was 86.
And the bell tolled for them as well.