On a December morning, they became eyewitnesses to history

World War II and United States Navy veteran Jack Holder discusses his experience during the bombing of Pearl Harbor while speaking to an audience at the annual American Veterans Center conference. Watch this video for details.

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 5, 2016

Seventy-five years ago, Cal Calderone was below deck on the battleship USS West Virginia, docked at Pearl Harbor, when torpedoes slammed into its port side. It was one of the first vessels hit.

Calderone, now 96 and living in Ohio, remembers the initial attack well, along with the events that followed it.

After feeling the impact of the torpedoes, Calderone attempted to stop the ship from flooding and capsizing. The only thing keeping it from tipping over was the USS Tennessee docked next to the “Wee Vee,” as the USS West Virginia is commonly called, he said.

He looked up and saw water pouring “like a hose” onto him and his shipmates.

The group of sailors was trapped, in the dark, as the water quickly rose to their chests.

“We all held hands so we wouldn’t get lost,” Calderone said. “I thought about my mother; how is she going to handle this? At one point, the man next to me squeezed my hand so hard he almost broke it.”

Someone had the idea to escape the ship through an air vent in another compartment that went to the top deck.

“Everybody said, ‘Let’s do it. Maybe we can make it,’” he recalled.

Calderone took three deep breaths — as his training had prepared him for — and swam into the vent.

He swam, one man above him and one below, until he couldn’t hold in his breath any longer, he said.

“Finally, I can’t go anymore. I figured I’m going to die,” he said. “I opened my mouth, and it was air. Air and water and oil.”

Calderone helped pull the rest of the men through before all of them collapsed onto the deck.

He remembers one man — the one who led the group through the vent. They were lying on the deck, exhausted, when he and the man touched each other’s faces.

“We were brothers,” he said, his voice breaking.

The group of men got up and went their separate ways, adrenaline fueling them through the rest of the day of trying to defend against the Japanese attack.

Calderone never saw the man again and never learned his name.

“I’ve spent 75 years trying to find out who this person was,” he said. “Whoever he was, he saved my life, and I’ve carried that in my heart.”

The “Wee-Vee” sunk that day, and the seven other battleships at Pearl Harbor sunk or were damaged.

The ship was recovered several months later. It was repaired and reintroduced to the Navy fleet in 1944.

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, 66 bodies were found in the battleship when it was brought up from the seafloor. It was determined that some of the sailors had lived for days before dying of lack of oxygen.

Richard Schimmel was one of the first people — the fifth, to be exact — to learn of the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that drove the United States into World War II.

Schimmel, now 94, was a 19-year-old Army radar operator assigned to set up radar units around Hawaii.

He manned his station at the radar information center at Fort Shafter in Honolulu — east of Pearl Harbor — until midnight Dec. 7, 1941. Schimmel’s friend, Joe McDonald, took the next shift.

About seven hours later, McDonald received a call from a radar unit in northeast Oahu that had spotted a large number of planes coming toward the Hawaiian Islands.

McDonald took the intelligence to the lieutenant in charge, who dismissed it, assuming they were American planes.

Schimmel had arrived back at the station by this time. After McDonald, the lieutenant and the two men at the radar unit in Oahu, he was the next to know.

He recalled McDonald taking the information to the lieutenant several times and being brushed off.

“The lieutenant, his words were gold. Whatever he said had to go,” Schimmel said. “When you’re in the service, whatever an officer says to you, you do it. So we forgot about it. And maybe 20 minutes later is when the bombs started dropping.”

Schimmel has thought over the past 75 years about what could have happened.

If the lieutenant would’ve acted on the information, the men at Pearl Harbor would have had about an hour’s notice before the Japanese arrived.

“If we would have had any kind of warning, ships would have been ready,” Schimmel said. “We would have been ready to fight back. They may have done some damage, but not the damage we did have.”

According to local reports, Schimmel still has a laminated copy of the handwritten warning from that day. He plans to be in Hawaii for the 75th reunion.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Ford Island was the epicenter of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet was anchored near the 1.4-mile-long island, which sits in the middle of the harbor, and 70 aircraft were on the island that day.

Jack Holder, a Navy flight engineer, was also on the island. He was in one of the hangars that morning when he heard the scream of aircraft. Moments later, there was a “terrible explosion,” he said.

“We thought one of our own aircraft had crashed,” Holder said. “We ran outside, and the hangar beside us was engulfed in smoke and flame.”

Looking to the sky, Holder saw the first wave of Japanese aircraft, with their Rising Sun insignia.

“We immediately knew what happened,” he said. “Everything went through our mind – anger, fear.”

A sewer line behind Holder’s hangar was under construction. One of his fellow servicemembers remembered that and led a group of them to the site, where they took shelter in a ditch.

One of the Japanese pilots saw them, Holder said.

The pilot flew low, strafing the ditch, but missed the men by a few feet.

“I have been asked a thousand times what my thoughts were as we sat there clinging to each other,” Holder said. “I guess my most vivid memory is, ‘Please, please don’t let me die in this ditch.’ ”

The first wave of attacks ended at 8:45 a.m., and Holder and the other men left their shelter. Minutes later, the second wave of planes arrived.

Holder helped ready aircraft for flight.

He set up machine gun pits around Ford Island and manned one for the following three days and nights, in case of another attack.

“We were eating bologna sandwiches, drinking coffee, fighting mosquitoes and wondering where the Japanese forces were,” he said. “Every noise we heard, we knew they were coming back. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.”

On the fourth day following the attack, Holder returned to his barracks. He remembers seeing the lockers had been busted open and the clothes inside taken to be used as bandages.

Eleven days after that, he said, his mother received a card informing her that her son survived.

Holder, now 94, went on to fly dozens of missions over Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands.

He flew in the Battle of Midway and later he flew on anti-submarine patrol over the English Channel.

He wrote “Adrenaline, Excitement and Fear,” published in 2015, about his experiences at Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway.

His wife of 69 years died from Alzheimer’s disease in 2014, and he is now engaged to Ruth Calabro, 78. The couple made headlines earlier this year when scammers pretending to be from Publisher’s Clearing House tricked him into turning over $43,000.

Despite everything he has been through, he said that was “the worst day of my life.” The couple’s savings was replaced after more than 900 people gave to a crowdfunding campaign launched by a stranger, according to the Washington Post.

The destroyer USS Whitney was moored far enough from the action on Dec. 7, 1941, to escape any damage.

The crew, including James Leavelle, helped repair ships during and after the Japanese attack.

“I don’t have a heroic story to tell you,” Leavelle said recently. “We didn’t get hit, and nobody was hurt on my ship. We stayed around the harbor and helped other ships get back running.”

Leavelle described the rest of his life as “pretty dull.” But history notes otherwise.

Leavelle is a central character in an iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot to death at a Dallas police station two days after he assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

Leavelle, then a Dallas homicide detective, is the man in the tan suit and matching Stetson hat, escorting Oswald. He credits his life to his partner, who wrestled the gun from Jack Ruby before he was able to get more shots off. After Oswald was shot, Leavelle rode in the ambulance with him and watched the man die.

He was also the first to interrogate Oswald after his arrest.

“He told me what I already figured out: He was doing what he was doing for publicity and trying to make a name for himself,” Leavelle said. “Well, he did, but he didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.”

In interviews following the shooting, and in the years since, Leavelle has refuted the many conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s assassination.

Telling the story more than 50 years later, Leavelle said everyone involved — Oswald, Ruby and the many people with false tips whom he interviewed throughout the investigation — all sought notoriety.

Leavelle became instantly well-known, too.

He continues to answer questions about his experience, and he’s talked about the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination countless times to people from all over the world. At 96, the Texan and Pearl Harbor survivor tells the story now without much excitement. The suit and Stetson he wore in the iconic photo are now on display in the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, in the Texas School Book Depository, where evidence of a sniper was found after the assassination.

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Pearl Harbor veterans James Leavelle, left, and Adone "Cal" Calderone, at the 19th annual American Veterans Center Veterans Conference & Honors and National Youth Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in November, 2016. Leavelle was the first person to interrogate Lee Harvey Oswald after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

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