On this 76th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, we’re looking back in our archives to get the accounts of Napa residents who were there. In 2001, Register reporter Gary Brady-Herndon spoke with five local veterans on the occasion of the release of the movie “Pearl Harbor.”
These are their stories as told to us back then.
Lloyd La Brie
Lloyd La Brie was assigned to Bellows Field where he worked as an aviation ordnance man.
The first planes came in low, he said, strafing the area with machine gun fire as they made their initial fly over. When he arrived at the hangar, he was given a .30-caliber machine gun and told to set up a gun station on the runway. His orders were to engage the marauding Japanese planes as they came in steady waves, shooting and bombing as they flew over the field.
“We were all just kids. I said to myself ‘I’ll never live through this day,’” La Brie recalled. “For six weeks after the attack, we had air raid warnings every night, so we slept out back away from the barracks,” La Brie remembered.
Wayne McClure was asleep on the USS Case, a destroyer in port for repairs. When the first bombs exploded, he ran topside.
“The officer of the deck told me that we had crew members on the shore waiting to be picked up and brought back to the ship. He told me and another sailor to take a motor launch and go bring them back,” McClure said.
They spent the rest of the day ferrying sailors back to those ships not yet abandoned from damage inflicted by the bombs.
“The waves (of planes) didn’t last longer than 20 minutes at a time, but you didn’t know when the next wave was coming — they seemed to last forever,” McClure said.
McClure noted the general response to the attack that evening and the days that followed was predictable.
“We were fighting mad — so many killed — it was a tragic sight. There was a feeling of anger (over) the surprise of it all,” McClure said. “It created conditions where we could win,” McClure said emphatically.
Nathaniel Clark Firestone
Nathaniel Clark Firestone served on the USS Medusa, a floating workshop to repair damaged combat vessels. When the bombs started falling, he immediately went to his duty station. “It was over by 10 a.m. — roughly — don’t really know the exact time. We had been lead to believe that a battleship wouldn’t sink, but we passed (destroyed) battleship after battleship. I was scared to death,” he said. “They (the American commanders) were expecting attacks all night long,” he said, even at times, mistakenly shooting at American planes. “They (the Japanese) weren’t really after everything — just the battleships. They did a pretty good job.
In the days that followed, Firestone said, morale grew every day as those left alive tended to the surviving personnel and ships,
“It was ‘Let’s go get ‘em’” he said. “We started doing our job — repairing ships. The attack brought us together — that’s my theory. We used to wonder when it was going to start. Where it would begin. We found out the hard way.”
Joe Hendrickson was standing on a dock waiting for his day to begin when he saw the first planes.
“I looked over at the number six hangar and saw a plane diving at the building. I remember thinking those fools are going to hurt somebody. The first plane dropped a bomb that missed the hangar and exploded on the side of the building. I thought at first that they were dummy bombs and the pilots were playing a joke,” Hendrickson said
The next plane he saw, however, released a bomb that hit the hangar. The result was a massive explosion. Reacting to the sound of another plane, Hendrickson turned to see a two-man torpedo plane flying down the middle of the channel. He saw the pilot hunched over the controls concentrating on his attack. In the rear seat, a machine gunner sat waiting patiently.
“They flew so close to me that the machine gunner and I made eye contact,” Hendrickson said. “I found out later that the machine gunner was under strict orders not to fire until after the torpedoes were dropped so as not to break the pilot’s concentration. I’m here today because of that,” Hendrickson said.
“I don’t think you saw any cowards that day, but we were bewildered. We thought before the attack we could beat them with one hand tied behind our backs. After the attack, we found out they were pretty good,” Hendrickson said.
The final Pearl Harbor veteran gave a different account of the events that transpired on that fateful Sunday. Telling his story with the aid of longtime friend, Bob Richardson, Robert Gorman related his experience as seen from the destroyer USS Ward.
Hours before the attack Gorman sat at his sonar station as the Ward patrolled the mouth of Pearl Harbor. Designated as a “no sub” zone, the Ward’s responsibility was to destroy unwanted intruders who might stray into the area.
Approximately 45 minutes before the attack began, Gorman detected the noise of a two-man submarine just outside the harbor entrance. The captain ordered the submarine sunk. He planned to ram the sub, but later ordered the Ward’s three inch guns to fire on the ship. The sinking of the two-man sub marked the first blow by an American vessel against the Japanese
Later in the afternoon, the Ward steamed into the harbor amid the wreckage and destruction. Gorman told Anderson, “a cheer went up” as they passed the crippled ships from the crews coping with the destruction caused by the raid.
At that point, the Ward was one of the few U. S. ships left sailing, and the sight of an American vessel, Gorman believes, gave hope to the sailors battling the effects of the morning bombing raid.
While filmmakers strive for authenticity and the right blend of human interest between the actors on stage and the horrors of war, the end result will always be only a representation of the stories of the true heroes of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Men like La Brie, Mc Clure, Firestone, Hendrickson and Gorman tell the story as it should be told, through the eyes and memories of those who served there.