Pearl Harbor survivors ‘back home’ for anniversary as their numbers dwindle
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2017
PEARL HARBOR VISITOR’S CENTER, Honolulu — Sitting in the front row reserved for surviving Pearl Harbor veterans, 95-year-old Delton Walling said he was “back home” during a ceremony Thursday commemorating the 76th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
“I’m back with my comrades,” said Walling, a sailor whose battle station that day was 180 feet in the air in a communications tower on Ford Island. “When you’re in the boondocks in the United States, who do I talk to? Nobody. Nobody understands. I’m in a different world.”
If not understood, this ever-shrinking group of survivors is certainly appreciated, with 2,000 visitors cramming the seating overlooking the harbor that holds the wreck of the USS Arizona, sunk during the attack and now a memorial. Hundreds of other visitors stood and watched.
“You and I have come to call these Americans our Greatest Generation, but I doubt in those first early months – or ever – they went around wearing T-shirts that proclaimed, ‘We’re awesome!’” said Stephen Twomey, the ceremony’s keynote speaker and author of “Countdown to Pearl Harbor.”
“They simply got on with it – with the fighting and the rationing and the manufacturing and the bond-buying and, yes, the dying,” he said.
During an interview before the ceremony, Walling said he thought he would die that day.
“I didn’t know they was only after the ships.” Had the enemy bombers known, however, that the tower that day was acting as the communications center for Adm. Husband Kimmel, who was commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet and Pacific Fleet, “I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.
For two USS Arizona survivors – Donald Stratton and Lauren Bruner -- this year’s ceremony is the long-awaited chance to witness the recognition of one sailor’s actions that saved their lives.
Chief Boatswain's Mate Joseph George, who died in 1996, was to be awarded later in the day a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor for helping six sailors reach safety from the Arizona to the USS Vestal, the repair ship upon which George was stationed.
“I think he deserves it, and I think it’s long overdue,” Stratton said.
For the past 16 years, Stratton and Bruner had been petitioning the Navy to award George a medal for helping six sailors climb hand-over-hand on a rope connecting the flaming Arizona to the Vestal. It was George who had thrown them the line.
George, who spent 20 years in the Navy, retiring in 1955 as a chief petty officer, had a penchant for brawling and faced several courts martial for it. Two days before the Dec. 7 attack, he had gotten into a drunken fight and was confined to the Vestal.
“I could care less about that,” Stratton said. “He was the gentleman who saved my life, and whether he was a hell-raiser or not, it didn’t make no difference to me. He’s a hero to me.”
U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Scott Swift told the audience that same word was applicable to all servicemembers who fought that day, more than 2,400 of whom died.
“Make no mistake, though they all awoke that morning as ordinary sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen, by the time the guns fell silent, they were heroes all,” Swift said.
He highlighted the actions of the crew aboard the USS Ward, a destroyer credited with firing America’s first shot in World War II when it blasted a hole through a Japanese midget submarine in Pearl Harbor about 90 minutes before the main aerial attack began on Dec. 7, 1941.
“What I find compelling about Ward’s story is that the crew overcame the culture of peacetime fleet posture so quickly and effectively,” he said. “Ward’s experience reminds us today that the transition from operation as a peacetime Navy to conducting wartime missions can happen in an instant, and we as a fleet need to be prepared to act.”
Twomey also singled out the actions that day by the commander of the USS Ward, the wreck of which was filmed by a research vessel on Dec. 1 for the first time since it was sunk near the Philippines in 1944.
William Outerbridge had assumed command of the Ward only two days before the surprise attack and taken it to sea for the first time on Dec. 6.
“It was 6:37 a.m. and the country had been enjoying peace for decades,” Twomey said in describing the new commander’s actions on Dec. 7.
“Suddenly there was a conning tower poking just above the surface, almost directly ahead,” he said. “It clearly was not American.”
Outerbridge was summoned to the bridge.
“The brand new captain was face with a momentous decision: what should he do about this submarine?” Twomey said. “Could this really be the Japanese? Was the long, long peace finally over?”
Outerbridge hesitated “not one second,” and “Billy told his sailors to open fire,” Twomey said. The submarine turned over and sank.
A few days later, Outerbridge wrote an update to his wife.
“Joined the ship Friday, got underway Saturday morning and started the war on Sunday.”