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Writer's note: More voices

UNT's Oral History Program
Photos from the Naval Historical Center
National Museum of the Pacific War
More on Pearl Harbor

After Sept. 11
It's How You Play the Game
Putting Together the Pieces

Ron Marcello, professor of history and director of the Oral History Collection, has preserved hundreds of Pearl Harbor accounts.

AS A MESS COOK AT FORD ISLAND Naval Air Station on Oahu, Hawaii, Houston James was usually cooking breakfast by 5 a.m. After two months of early mornings, he planned to sleep late on Dec. 7, 1941.

That didn’t happen. James woke to the sound of bombs as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began. Within two hours, 2,403 Americans would be killed and most of the Pacific Fleet destroyed.

After being awakened, James peered through the barracks’ large window, which overlooked the harbor and Battleship Row.

“There was a never-ending stream of airplanes coming down and dropping torpedoes. It was so fast and furious that all I saw was geysers of water going up and all of the sudden things were catching on fire,” he remembers.

Trained as a metalsmith to repair airplanes, James ran to his assigned hangar through enemy fire. A Japanese plane dropped a bomb about 100 feet from him, but it didn’t go off.

“I thought every one of those airplanes over Ford Island was personally trying to seek me out. I was trying to time my runs between buildings to get down to the hangar between airplanes flying over me,” James says. “I was scared to death.”

Sixty years have passed since that Sunday morning. But the experiences of more than 350 people who survived the attack, including James, won’t be forgotten, thanks to the Pearl Harbor survivors project in the UNT Oral History Collection.

Marcello has maintained contact with Pearl Harbor survivors hes interviewed. The story of Alex Vraciu, who shot down six planes in one afternoon, is preserved in volume OH1037.

Firsthand accounts

For 30 years, Ron Marcello, UNT professor of history and director of the collection, has gathered memories of soldiers and sailors, their wives, nurses and chaplains. The bound transcripts of the interviews are available in the UNT Archives.

Marcello and Robert LaForte, Professor Emeritus of history, published a book based on the interviews, Remembering Pearl Harbor: Eyewitness Accounts by U.S. Military Men and Women. The book’s second edition was released this year.

“I have interviews from those who were on almost every ship, station and base on Oahu,” Marcello says. “We always talk about the Pearl Harbor attack and think of the ships destroyed on Battleship Row, but the airbases were hit first.”

Marcello says he hopes the interviews “will give future generations an appreciation of what these people did.”

“The window of opportunity is closing for interviews. Within 10 years, there will be very few Pearl Harbor survivors still alive, which makes the project even more important,” he says.

James, now 77 and president of the North Central Texas chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, agrees.

“It’s extremely important for those of us who were there to leave behind firsthand accounts,” he says.

Marcello began the Pearl Harbor survivors project in 1971 when he returned to his small hometown of Wrightsville, Pa., to interview Sam Zangari.

“He worked at the local post office, and I was his paperboy. I knew he was a Pearl Harbor survivor,” Marcello says. Zangari was stationed at the Schofield Barracks, Pearl Harbor’s largest U.S. Army outpost, on Dec. 7, 1941.

Marcello had become director of UNT’s Oral History Collection in 1968. The collection then consisted of interviews with Texas political figures, and he did not plan to add different types of interviews to it.
As a historian, however, Marcello believes World War II “was the defining event for the United States in the 20th century.”

“Here was an opportunity to interview an eyewitness to a significant event in the war,” he says.


To die with our boots on

Marcello didn’t interview any other Pearl Harbor survivors until February 1974, when he spoke with Philip Willis (’48), an Army Air Corps pilot. Marcello contacted him after he was featured in the Dallas Morning News.

Willis’ squadron was stationed at Bellows Field, a temporary auxiliary base, on Dec. 7, 1941. He was scheduled to leave the base on Dec. 8 and was out celebrating his departure the evening of Dec. 6. He returned to Bellows at 4 a.m. and fell asleep still in his tuxedo. Bombs and machine gun fire woke him.

“I said, ‘Us Texans like to die with our boots on,’” Willis recalled for the Oral History Collection. “I got my cowboy boots and put them on with the tuxedo pants and shirt and grabbed my flight jacket and helmet.”

He and other pilots ran to save their planes.

“We had no ammunition, so we were told to fly up and down over the treetops,” he recalled.

Willis landed when the Japanese left after destroying Bellows’ gasoline trucks and radio shack. But his plane was destroyed when the Japanese returned for a second attack.

Willis was then assigned to a Hawaiian National Guard unit. On Dec. 8, he helped to capture the first Japanese prisoner of World War II — one of two sailors on a two-man suicide submarine.

“They had 500 pounds of TNT in it. They were supposed to ram something, and the TNT would blow up the submarine and them and whatever they rammed. They didn’t set it off. They didn’t want to die, I guess,” Willis said.

The submarine snagged on a coral reef and its crew hid underwater. When Willis’ unit arrived, one of the sailors had drowned. The other eventually surrendered and was held in California for the rest of the war.

Willis, meanwhile, became one of Texas’ most decorated pilots. After earning his degree from UNT, he served two terms in the Texas Legislature before he died in 1995.


Peace to war in a minute

Marcello says the rest of his interviews with Pearl Harbor survivors sprang from his interview with Willis.

“Phil belonged to the North Central Texas chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, and he invited me to attend a meeting. I gave my pitch for more interviews,” Marcello says. “Since then, I’ve visited virtually every chapter in Texas, and some in other states, and attended state meetings of the association.”

Carl Mason agreed to be interviewed for the Oral History Collection after meeting Marcello at a North Central Texas chapter meeting. In December 1941, he was 19 and a combat engineer at the Schofield Barracks. He was in a mess hall when the attack began.

“When the second bomb dropped, we went outside and looked,” Mason recalled for the collection. “Right up there was a Japanese plane. (The pilot) was looking down at me, and I was looking up at him.”

Mason and other soldiers loaded machine guns and set up an anti-aircraft weapon to defend their base. But many were killed as Japanese machine gunners fired at the library, a sleeping quarters and men standing outside in the mess hall breakfast line.

“I went from peace to war in a minute,” Mason remembered. “You were sitting there eating breakfast peaceful, and then the next minute, you were at war. I think a lot about my buddies who got killed, and I thank the dear Lord for sparing my life.”

Mason returned to Oahu on the 40th, 45th and 50th anniversaries of the bombing, but remembered it this year in Texas at the Official Mainland Commemoration at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg.


Pearl Harbor survivor Carl Mason was in a mess hall eating breakfast when the attack began. Interviewed for the Oral History Collection, he is now one of its financial supporters.

Keeping history alive

Marcello plans to continue finding and interviewing Pearl Harbor survivors as long as possible.

“Memory can be notoriously unreliable, so I’m always looking for collaborating sources,” he says.

Marcello says recent Hollywood films, including this year’s Pearl Harbor, and newscaster Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation have created a renewed interest in Pearl Harbor and World War II in general.

“I think we pay more attention to this war than any other of the 20th century because our national security was more in jeopardy than during any other war,” he says.

Mason, who became a financial supporter of the Oral History Collection after being interviewed, calls the collection “a wonderful thing.”

“Most Pearl Harbor survivors want to keep the memory of Pearl Harbor alive, and recording memories is the best way,” he says. “There’s also a need to keep history alive. A country without history isn’t a very strong country.”


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