Podcast Episodes

77 Years Ago

The day this episode is released, December 7th, 2018, marks the 77th anniversary of the event that would send the United States into World War II, the devastating surprise attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor.

The U.S.S. Arizona, a Pennsylvania class battleship had been moved from California to Pearl Harbor in an effort to ward off the Japanese from attacking the vulnerable island territory. On December 7th, 1941, the Arizona exploded violently and sank, with the loss of 1,177 officers and crewmen.

Each year, thousands gather at a commemoration ceremony, including survivors of the attack and their families. 2,403 service members and civilians in total were killed during the attack, and 1,178 people were injured. As the years roll on, the ceremony is weighed by the fewer and fewer survivors who are able to attend. This year, only five men who were onboard the Arizona are still living, and none will be able to attend, due to age, health, and the stresses of travel.

It’s twilight for the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack, and today on America’s National Parks, we honor their memory, along with the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.


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Transcript

The day this episode is released, December 7th, 2018, marks the 77th anniversary of the event that would send the United States into World War II, the devastating surprise attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor.

The U.S.S. Arizona, a Pennsylvania class battleship had been moved from California to Pearl Harbor in an effort to ward off the Japanese from attacking the vulnerable island territory. On December 7th, 1941, the Arizona exploded violently and sank, with the loss of 1,177 officers and crewmen.

Each year, thousands gather at a commemoration ceremony, including survivors of the attack and their families. 2,403 service members and civilians in total were killed during the attack, and a further 1,178 people were injured. As the years roll on, the ceremony is weighed by the fewer and fewer survivors who are able to attend. This year, only five men who were onboard the Arizona are still living, and none will be able to attend, due to age, health, and the stresses of travel.

It’s twilight for the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack, and today on America’s National Parks, we honor their memory, along with the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

In his own words, Pearl Harbor Survivor, World War II flight engineer, and Army Air Corps line chief Everest Capra described the attack.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

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It was of no surprise when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941. Most of us had been expecting this, but did not have the actual date.

Like every Sunday morning, I would get up early to play tennis. At 7:00, I finished playing and decided to wash up and have breakfast. Donart and I arrived at the mess hall, Hickam Field, at about 7:31 and were refused entry because we were one minute late. Donart, known for his silence and courtesy, told the warrant officer in charge, I hope this place blows up.

Donart would never say things like that. But at about five minutes to eight that morning, the officer got the surprise of his life. I am still wondering if he thought about what Donart had said.

At that moment, I went over to Lt. Shea’s bachelor quarters and started to make myself breakfast. Throwing out the eggshell, I noted three odd aircraft flying about. Then I noticed the red ball, and I knew right that minute that it was the day. Only wearing tennis shorts and sneakers, I ran about the buildings screaming, “They are here!” and then all hell started to break loose.

I made it back to the barracks just in time, to get some better wear… and just as I exited the barracks, they were hit.

From that moment on, running about trying to escape from being hit, I and two others started picking bodies to take to the hospital which just opened the day before. I was later hit, and knocked out for a while … I was bleeding from a hanging finger and also leg wounds. But did not turn myself in. I managed to put my index finger back together with masking tape and it healed after six weeks. The other wounds, I also took care of myself. Fearing that if I did turn myself in, I would be placed in a bed or whatever, and probably get hit again, because the Japanese did not honor the new hospital. Nevertheless, I did the best I could in trying to save those more unfortunate.
____

Six months later, Everest Capra would fight in the Battle of Midway. He died in 2005.

On December 7, 1941, Gino Gasparelli’s duty station was at Wheeler Field on the Island of Oahu. Wheeler Field was the largest fighter air base on the island, and it had been on an alert status all week long until Saturday morning, December 6.
_____

The alert was called off after morning inspection, but all of the 48 or so fighter planes were left lined up wing tip to wing tip on the ramp in front of the four large plane hangars. All personnel not on weekend duty could go on weekend pass.

I did not leave the field that Saturday because a sergeant friend and I had planned to take a trip around the island on Sunday, 7 December 1941, after breakfast.

After returning to my barrack from the mess hall, which was about twenty minutes to eight, I was talking to Seargent Price and we heard planes that did not sound anything like our own P40 or P36 fighter planes. They also sounded like they were flying very low. This must have been just about five minutes to eight o’clock a.m.

I ran out the back door, looked up, and saw a large black painted plane coming towards my barracks. The plane was flying no higher than treetop level, and I could see the machine gunner in the rear seat. The plane was just about over the barrack when he released a bomb. For a moment I was stunned when I saw this, and realized we were under an attack.

I ran back into the barrack screaming that we were under an attack, and ordered the men in my squad to get out, dressed or not dressed. Some were still in bed, and some still had hangovers from being on pass the night before. That first bomb had just hit one of the hangers.

After telling the men to get out fast, I also ran out the back door and saw Seargent Thomas, our platoon sergeant, ordering the men to head for a row of high shrubs and small trees about seventy yards from our barrack. We had no arms whatsoever, so we just took cover under the high shrubs and small trees. I am positive we were spotted by some of those Japanese pilots because after a few minutes, small twigs and branches began to fall down due to the machine gun fire from those planes. When things began to quiet down, some men were ordered to go to the supply room and break out boxes containing 20 caliber rifles. I was ordered to take my squad and try to get and bring back cement bags which were down on the flight line near one of the hangers.

Out of a few hundred men stationed at Wheeler Field that morning, casualties amounted to eighty dead and wounded.

____

Like Everest Carpra, Gino Gasparelli also died in 2005.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Sterling Cale had just finished up a long night of work. He was a pharmacist’s mate in the Navy, a self-proclaimed “farm boy from Illinois.” He worked at the dispensary, where Sailors got their medicine. Just after signing out, he noticed planes flying over Battleship Row.

____

“Why are planes over at Battleship Row? That’s a lot of activity for Sunday,” Sterling Cale said to himself after ending his work shift.

He noticed the red circles on the planes. They were Japanese, and this was a real attack. He ran back inside to break out some guns. Outside, he saw and heard planes dropping bombs just over the water. He and his friends knew the men at Battleship Row needed their help. They headed toward the USS Oklahoma. Before they got there, it rolled over.

Sailors filled the waters of Pearl Harbor, swimming for their lives in T-shirts and shorts. The top of the water was burning. The oil leaking from the ships was on fire. Sterling and his friends had to swim underwater as much as possible to avoid getting burned. It was their job to help rescue people from the water. He was right there in the water when the USS Arizona blew up. No one who heard that deafening sound would ever forget it. After the initial explosion, it burned for two-and-a-half days.

“In four hours, I picked up about 45 people. Some were dead, some were badly burned, some were just tired. We would get them in a boat going by.” He still tears up when remembering what it was like.

When he first returned to his duty station, he was scolded for breaking into the armory during “peacetime.” War wasn’t declared until the next day. But instead of getting in trouble, he was rewarded with a carton of cigarettes.

After the attack, it was Sterling’s job, along with a detail of 10 men, to remove bodies from the burning Arizona. They did their best, but it was difficult work. Besides being emotionally draining, it was physically challenging. There weren’t many identifiable bodies to recover.

For three weeks, the detail kept track of the condition and location of the remains they found. The fire was so intense that it even melted ID tags and guns. Overall, Sterling’s work team removed about 107 identifiable bodies and a number of unknowns. Their families would never know exactly what happened.

He can still picture the scene like it was yesterday. It was a trying time in his life and career, but it did not discourage him from serving the United States with pride.

Sterling later continued to fight with the navy in the war, before switching to the Army. He served as the head of the pharmacy at Tripler Hospital and a medical company at Schofield Barracks. He then served over a year on the front lines in Korea in 1950. Eventually, after more service on Oahu, the mainland, and in Vietnam, Sterling retired from the Army as a sergeant major.

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Sterling Cale wrote a book about his life, called A TRUE AMERICAN. He is now 97 years old, and continues to volunteer at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.

Our final story comes from a hero who defied orders to save lives.

—–

Petty Officer First Class Joseph Leon George was 26 years old on December 7, 1941. At the time of the attack, he was a crew member aboard the USS Vestal, a repair ship moored right next to the USS Arizona.

Following the massive explosion on the USS Arizona, six sailors were trapped in the control tower on the Arizona’s main mast, kept there by the fires raging below. Already badly burned, they searched for a way to escape the ship.

Joe George spotted them from the USS Vestal and threw them a line, in spite of being ordered to cut the line between the Vestal and the sinking Arizona. Climbing hand over hand across the rope, all six sailors made it across alive. One would die a few weeks later from his injuries, but the rest survived.

George passed away in 1996, never officially recognized for his heroic actions. But in 2017, the United States Navy finally authorized the award of a combat medal to Joe George.

On Dec. 7, 2017, Rear Admiral Matthew Carter, deputy commander of the US Pacific Fleet, presented the Bronze Star to George’s daughter, Joe Ann Taylor, aboard the USS Arizona Memorial. Lauren Bruner and Don Stratton, two of the men George saved from the USS Arizona, had petitioned for this honorable award for many years and attended the ceremony.

“I am an onboard survivor of the attack on the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941.” said Stratton. “Six men were trapped on the foremast; on the sky control platform one deck above the bridge, where the Admiral and the Captain were killed. We had no way off and were burning alive, when we saw a sailor on the USS Vestal. We waved at him and got his attention, and he threw us a line and we tied it off to a bigger line and proceeded to go hand over hand to the Vestal after we suffered burns. The Japanese were firing at us as the oil in the water under us was burning.

We all made it across the line because of the bravery of the seaman, Joe George. Two men died of their burns that day at the hospital and the four other men, Bruner, Lott, Rhiner, and myself lived. I was in the hospital for a year, but because of Joe George went on to have a family. There are two of us alive today. We attended the 70th USS Arizona reunion in Hawaii.

Joe George was never awarded anything for his bravery and going against a direct order from his Captain, who wanted to pull away from the Arizona and leave us all to die.”

_____

The wreck still lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, 40 feet below the water’s surface. The USS Arizona Memorial was dedicated on 30 May 1962 to all those who died during the attack. It straddles but does not touch the ship’s hull. Over 900 bodies remain entombed in the Arizona. Many survivors of the attack have their ashes placed within the ship upon their death, joining their fallen comrades.

The memorial is located on the southern end of the island of Oahu, Hawai’i, and can only be accessed by boat from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. The visitor center is not located on a military base and is accessible to the public. The USS Arizona Memorial program is 75 minutes long and starts in the theater with a 23-minute documentary. This is followed by a boat ride to the memorial, time at the memorial, and a boat ride back. Visiting is free, but requires a timed-entry ticket. You can reserve tickets in advance at recreation.gov.

The memorial is closed for repairs until March of 2019. Until then, visitors can take a 30-minute narrated harbor tour of Battleship Row and the area around the USS Arizona Memorial.

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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