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More accounts of the attack on Pearl Harbor, taken from survivors' interviews for UNT's Oral History Collection



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Putting Together the Pieces

    Martin Matthews of Richardson lied about his age to enter the U.S. Navy in October 1941. He was 15, but his father signed an affidavit saying he was 17 the minimum age to enter the Navy. "At that time, the Navy was looking for personnel, and they kind of turned their heads about the age," Matthews said.

Matthews was stationed at Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, where he attended aviation metalsmith school to learn to repair damaged aircraft. On Dec. 7, 1941, however, Matthews was on the USS Arizona. He had spent the night with a friend who was part of the Arizona's crew. The two woke up around 6 a.m. and had breakfast and were touring the battleship when the Japanese attack began.

"You could see a bunch of planes coming in. Then you heard what seemed liked thunder in the background, which was actually bombs starting to drop. But none of us thought about bombs, because we didn't even know what a bomb was," Matthews recalled. "As these planes got closer, the thunder got closer… Then we saw fire and explosions where they've hit. We knew that something was wrong, but we thought maybe it was gunnery practice or something."

Matthews later learned he had witnessed the destruction of the USS Shaw, a destroyer anchored off of Ford Island. General quarters then sounded on the Arizona, and Matthews' friend left him for his station. Matthews remained in the back part of the Arizona and was there when the battleship was hit by a torpedo between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m.

"I heard a thunderous explosion and fire went up on the starboard side… It shook me up," he recalled. "I think the second bomb that hit the Arizona was close to the aft deck that I was on. Needless to say, I was petrified… I was basically just trying to get myself under cover… I was too young to realize what was going on and didn't know that this was a war breaking out. I thought maybe this was just some big mistake."

The second or third torpedo to the Arizona landed Matthews in the ocean. He swam 20 to 30 yards away from the ship and clung to a buoy to which the ship was tied. He was still a mile away from shore.

"There was steel in the air; there was fire; and there was oil, pieces of timber, pieces of the boat deck, canvas and even pieces of bodies," he said. "I would have gone on to shore, except there was just as much havoc going on with bombing at the Naval Air Station on Ford Island."

From the buoy, Matthews witnessed the sinking of the Arizona: "It was a fireworks display. It was ammunition, gun lockers, shells, fragments and pyrotechnics coming, it seemed to me, from all parts of the ship. It was a series of explosions." He remembered being showered by steel pieces, shrapnel and parts of bodies, but was not hurt.

After the Arizona sank, Matthews swam for shore, covered in black oil and sludge. He returned to the Naval Air Station and spent the rest of the day rescuing people and removing damaged aircraft from runways. He learned later that his friend on the Arizona was one of many killed on the battleship.

Even after his experience on Dec. 7, Matthews never thought of quitting the Navy or turning himself in to authorities because he was underage. "I knew then that even if I had to wait two years, I would still join up," he said.


William Eaton was a buck sergeant stationed with the Army Air Corps at Hickam Field at Pearl Harbor. After almost a year at the field, Eaton was expected to leave on Dec. 8, 1941. On Dec. 7, he woke up at 7:30 a.m. to get ready to play badminton at 8 a.m.

"I was sitting there trying to decide on what clothing to wear, and a Navy plane flew over the barracks very low. Now this usually occurred when the Navy wanted us to know they were flying on a Sunday. So we're sitting there making smart remarks about the Navy, and a big explosion occurs over the harbor. We figure something really went wrong," Eaton recalled.

Clad only in his underwear, Eaton went outside to look around.

"About then a torpedo bomber came from the other direction out of the harbor, right across our flagpole, right across the tip of the barracks and … the guy in the back seat is shooting at me," he recalled.

Eaton noticed the Japanese insignia on the plane, which was only 50 feet above the ground.

"I thought about it for about half a second and said, 'We are under attack! The Japanese are going to bomb us!'" he said.

Eaton fled to the base's post office, where he and a corporal watched the activity over the harbor: "It was pretty obvious that this was a catastrophe. What we were watching was the development of World War II, as far as our involvement was concerned. We didn't really think of it that way, but what we did think of was, 'If those guys can come here and do that, what are they going to do next?' I mean, today."

After a few minutes, Eaton managed to run back to his barracks. He put on his mechanic's suit and went to the airplane hangars. He took charge of dispensing ammunition and bombs for the airplanes. He also went into an airplane's rear turret as the gunner and waited for Japanese planes to arrive: "You looked up over the area toward the western edge of Oahu, and you could see this huge formation of aircraft approaching … They came right across Hickam and bombed the barracks."

Before the day was over, 206 people would die at Hickam Field. Eaton left the field on Dec. 10, two days later than scheduled.


John Vaessen was a seaman second class on the USS Utah. On Dec. 7, 1941, he arrived 15 minutes early for his 8 a.m. watch in the ship's switchboard room, which controlled the electrical system.

Ten minutes later, at 7:55 a.m., he thought the ship had been rammed when water started pouring into the room. In reality, the Utah, a battleship that had been converted to a mobile target vessel used for drills, had been hit by two torpedoes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

As the ship started to roll over, Vaessen activated the emergency lighting system. He then grabbed the flashlight that he had been repairing before the attack and headed to the hatch. He made his way to the bilge area, taking with him the wrench that opened it.

"I was hanging onto everything, the door and anything I could grab. The deck plates came flying by me, fire extinguishers, everything loose. I was hit in many places but not by sharp edges," he said. "With the wrench, I hit the bottom of the ship. I crawled along and pounded away. I heard voices and then silence. Pretty soon, some voices came back, with more people. Then after a while I saw a little red spot somebody with a cutting torch. The sparks were coming down on me, but I didn't care. The best shower I've ever had!"


Kenton and Minerva Nash lived in base housing at Kaneohe Naval Air Station where Kenton was head yeoman for PBY Squadron VP-11. They were married 23 days before the Pearl Harbor attack.

"We had been sleeping when we heard the roar of planes," Minerva recalled. "I got up and looked out the window, and I saw this fire. I said: 'Ken, there's a fire in the hangar.' Ken came out and said, 'That isn't the hangar! That's the PBY on the bay!' The (Japanese) planes were flying rather low in the back of our place. If I had had a baseball, I could have hit a plane from my bedroom window."

Kenton hurried to the hangar as the second assault on the air station began.

"The main thing they did was to destroy our planes. The minute those tracer bullets hit gasoline, the planes just exploded. It was pretty sad to see brand-new planes destroyed so quickly," he said.

Minutes later, Kenton was hit by shrapnel.

"I think the bomb that hit me was dropped by a plane that was a little off target," he said. "I really think he should have been aiming at the hangar, and I was a good 150 feet from the hangar. The bomb hit about 60 feet away and exploded. I actually saw the windows pop out of my car the windshield and the back window. The shrapnel hit my arm and tore out the lower muscle and knocked a bone out of the upper arm."

Kenton's arm was amputated later that day at a mental hospital in Kaneohe. He and Minerva were reunited after she and all the other Navy wives were evacuated to Kaneohe.


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