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A seminal event in the nation’s history

Pearl Harbor [National Archives photo]

Pearl Harbor [National Archives photo]

“A day which will live in infamy.”

With those words, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the Dec. 7, 1941, raid on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in his war message to Congress the next day.

For a dwindling number of Americans and others, the sneak attack 75 years ago is akin to 9/11 and the day President Kennedy was shot: A day so firmly etched in memory that people clearly recall where they were and what they were doing when news of the event reached them.

That kind of happening is rare for most people and is one reason why Pearl Harbor was so momentous, according to John McManus, a military historian, author and professor at Missouri University of Science of Technology. McManus was born long after Pearl Harbor, but his studies, including research for an upcoming book about the U.S. Army’s role in World War II’s Pacific Theater, have given him insights on the attack and its significance in the nation’s history.

But Pearl Harbor still does exist in memory.

Bill McAnany

Bill McAnany

That memory is particularly vivid for a rapidly declining number of people – members of the U.S. Armed Forces who were on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and lived through the attack and its aftermath. Gordon Smith, who will be 94 later this month, and Bill McAnany, 95, are in that category.

From a “big picture” perspective, Pearl Harbor was important in ways other than the fact that it forcefully brought the United States into World War II, McManus said.

“It showed the nation’s intelligence apparatus had failed miserably,” he said. It was a failure leading to the creation of information-gathering machinery and analysis efforts that continue today, spurred to an even greater level since 9/11.

“From a military standpoint, Pearl Harbor was a huge moment emphasizing the importance of air power,” he continued.

It wasn’t the first all-aircraft naval attack in which ships on opposing sides never saw each other. That had come a year earlier when the British, as part of that nation’s Mediterranean Campaign, launched aircraft carrier-based planes against the Italian fleet anchored in the harbor of Taranto. British tactics in carrying out the air raid, including modifications to torpedoes and how they could be used in shallow water, were studied carefully by the Japanese military in planning for Pearl Harbor.

A unique political legacy – a national unity that continued throughout the war, despite allegations from Roosevelt critics that he knew about the attack and/or allowed it to happen, also derived from Dec. 7 event, according to McManus. Although shorter-lived, a similar unified spirit prevailed after 9/11 even though the Bush Administration was criticized for intelligence failures, he said.

Living through it

As Dec. 7 dawned, the thoughts of neither Smith nor McAnany were on the idea that war was almost upon them.

As a pharmacist’s mate and 2nd class petty officer aboard the USS Solace, a passenger vessel converted to a hospital ship, McAnany had entered the Navy a few months after graduating in 1938 from Wood River High School in Illinois. Born and raised during his early years in St. Louis, McAnany had moved with his family to Wood River when his father took a job there.

“I hated school then,” he said, adding that a career in the Navy looked better than continuing a formal education.

After basic training, he went to hospital corps school, worked in a Navy hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, and applied for x-ray training. He was assigned to duty on the 400-bed Solace in the summer of 1941 and the ship ultimately joined the fleet at Pearl Harbor in October.

Early on Sunday morning Dec. 7, McAnany and four crewmates hired a Japanese cab driver to take them sightseeing on Oahu. Miles away from Pearl Harbor, the group was unaware of the attack until military personnel, sent out to look for other service members, found them and ordered them back to their respective duty stations.

The second and final wave of the Japanese air attack took place as McAnany was returning to the Solace, anchored just north of “battleship row,” off the end of the northeast-southwest runway that bisected the Ford Island Naval Air Station.

“Leaking fuel from all the damaged ships had turned the water into a sea of flames and most of the survivors we picked up were burn victims,” McAnany recalled.

Dropped off at Ford Island where a mess hall and hangar were converted into sick bays, McAnany and other medical personnel worked virtually around the clock through the following Tuesday treating the wounded.

During this period and in the days that followed, McAnany learned that the “fog of war” had led to tragic and unintended consequences. Earlier Sunday morning before the air attack began, a U.S. destroyer patrolling offshore waters had spotted and sunk a small Japanese submarine trying to enter the harbor by following in another vessel’s wake.

A message about the sinking was radioed ashore but did not make it through the required hoops in time to sound an alert.

Later that day, six American planes flying in from an aircraft carrier returning to Pearl came under U.S. anti-aircraft fire from gunners fearing that another attack was under way. Five of the planes were shot down. The incident was one of many involving “friendly fire,” also blamed for almost all of the 68 civilian deaths that day.

Gordon Smith

Gordon Smith

While McAnany moved from Missouri to Illinois, Smith and his family moved in the opposite direction. Smith was born in East St. Louis and his family moved to south St. Louis early in his life. While still attending McKinley High School, he joined the Naval Reserve and was called to active duty before he graduated.

Serving as a fireman aboard the USS Schley, a World War I-vintage destroyer, Smith arrived at Pearl Harbor late in 1940. There, his ship engaged in patrol duty and various exercises. On the day of the attack, the Schley was among a number of ships moored, for overhaul and repairs, across the channel from battleship row.

Although many in the crew were on liberty, Smith was on a nearby support ship when the attack began.

“I looked out and saw all these planes. Didn’t realize at first they were Japanese and I wondered, ‘What the hell are they doing?’”

After spotting the rising sun emblem and witnessing numerous explosions, Smith quickly realized what was happening.

Watching the events unfold from what he agreed was a front row seat, Smith said, “Our ship couldn’t fight back because all the guns had been taken off. I thought they [the attacking planes] might come after us, but they were concentrating on the bigger targets.”

What may have helped ward off the attackers was the presence of tall cranes in the repair area where the ship was docked.

“Those planes were coming in really low – you could see the faces of the pilots – and I don’t think they wanted to get close to those cranes,” Smith said.

During the attack and its aftermath, the Navy crewman said he realized, “It wasn’t going to be a small war; it was going to be a big war.”

After the attack

McAnany remained with the Solace when it left Pearl Harbor in March 1942 to support U.S. forces battling further west.

“We took on lots of patients from the Coral Sea battle and Midway,” he said. After moving to waters near Guadalcanal, he said the Solace “took 22 loads of patients to Auckland and Wellington [New Zealand] for further treatment.”

“With our 400-bed capacity, that meant we transported almost 10,000 wounded during our stay there,” McAnany said.

Returning to the states late in 1943, McAnany, then a chief petty officer, was moved to the USS Samaritan, a World War I-era troop transport vessel converted to a hospital ship during World War II.

The Samaritan saw duty treating and evacuating the wounded at Guam, Saipan, Peleliu and Iwo Jima, and wound up providing hospital facilities for occupation forces at Tokyo and Sasebo after the war ended.

McAnany left active duty in 1958, but was in the fleet reserve for another 10 years.

The expertise acquired during his service years resulted in civilian jobs with well-known medical equipment manufacturers, working in Illinois, Arkansas and Missouri.

At the age of 50, McAnany married. He and his wife, Linda, whose career was in retail management with major department store chains, now live in Jefferson City.

“I’m working on 100 and I figure I have a good shot at it,” he said with a smile, noting that his great grandmother lived to be 98 and his father until 94.

McAnany, his wife and a neighbor couple were in Hawaii this week to attend the 75th anniversary observance of the Pearl Harbor attack. He also has participated in a number of earlier such events.

Pearl Harbor Memorial [National Archive photo]

Pearl Harbor Memorial [National Archive photo]

Work on Smith’s ship, the Schley, was rushed to completion following the Dec. 7 attack. After handling patrol duties at Pearl Harbor, the ship was converted for use as a fast transport specializing in putting troops ashore on various South Pacific islands.

Smith subsequently joined the crew of the USS Gambier Bay as a machinist’s mate. It was while serving on this ship, an escort aircraft carrier, that he was injured and had his closest brush with death.

In one of the battles that collectively became known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Gambier Bay was part of a small U.S. Naval group that, despite being outnumbered and heavily outgunned, turned back a larger Japanese force attempting a break through to Leyte. In the process, Smith’s ship was hit by fire from a number of enemy vessels.

As the battle continued, the concussion from one large shell blew a hole in the Gambier Bay, Smith recalled. When the small carrier slowed and eventually stopped, he said “the Japanese ships came by and basically used us for target practice.”

Smith and other crewmembers abandoned ship as the Gambier Bay sank. They spent two days in the water, with nothing to eat or drink, until rescue vessels finally arrived. During that period, sharks killed many of the drifting crewmen, but Smith escaped the deadly attacks.

“I had some shrapnel wounds in my legs. They weren’t bad, though. Yes, I guess you could say I was lucky, very lucky,” he summarized.

After the war and his Naval service ended, Smith sold insurance for 10 years and worked as a mail carrier for 20. It was during this period that he met the woman he later would marry and establish a home with in south St. Louis County. Marian died earlier this year, a loss that obviously still pains him.

Smith has visited Pearl Harbor three times since the war and earlier this year participated with other veterans in an honor flight to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial and other military monuments there.

The Navy veteran admits his military service isn’t a topic he often brings up. “It hurts to talk about it,” he stated quietly.

Smith has no children, but said he’s fortunate to have nieces and nephews living in the area. “If it weren’t for them, I’m not sure I’d make it,” he said.

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