Pearl Harbor vets honored by month-long tribute
By MARK FISCHENICH | The Free Press | Published: January 7, 2018
NORTH MANKATO, Minn. (Tribune News Service) -- It was 5 degrees below zero, a wind chill of -22, when Charles Sehe made his way Saturday morning into the North Mankato American Legion post for the conclusion of a month-long tribute to those serving on Oahu during the Pearl Harbor attack.
Sehe will turn 95 years old next month and needed his walker to slowly make his way across the icy, frozen parking lot of American Legion Post 518. The idea of skipping the event because of a Minnesota cold snap never occurred to him.
"Why don't you try 72 days at sea in the Arctic Ocean, the Aleutian campaign? Horizontal rain, sleet, snow, heavy fog, freezing temperatures -- all in one day," said Sehe, a veteran of Pearl Harbor, the Normandy invasion, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and, yes, the successful effort to drive the Japanese out of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. "This is mild."
Once inside, Sehe was seated next to Victor J. Paradis, 99, for the "retirement of the colors" ceremony signifying the end of the Legion's December tribute to military veterans who had served at Pearl Harbor.
Paradis was another survivor of the sneak attack that brought America into World War II. He, too, was unscathed on Dec. 7 but suffered plenty of hardship in the battles that followed, including the loss of about 40 mates in the engine room of the U.S.S. Northampton when it was struck by a Japanese torpedo about 12 months after Pearl Harbor.
"I worked with them for about a year and a half and lost all of them. None of them made it out," Paradis said.
He was in the mess hall when the cruiser was struck on the port side near the engine room, avoiding the fate of his fellow mechanics, and he worked his way to the starboard side as the ship burned.
"We got hit at about 17 minutes to 12-midnight, but the ship didn't sink until about 3 in the morning. So we had time to get off," he said.
When it was clear the Northampton was doomed, Paradis helped lower life rafts for other sailors before climbing on one himself.
"About a good-third of the ship was on fire," he said. "... After helping put about three (life rafts) off, I said, 'This is the time that V.J. is going to save his butt.'"
Both Sehe and Paradis enlisted in the Navy well before Dec. 7, 1941, and both served until after both Germany and Japan had been defeated.
Between them, they saw some of the most decisive moments of the war -- starting on that Sunday morning in Hawaii.
Sehe, an Illinois native who moved to Mankato to teach at the university in 1967, came within a whisker of being assigned to the battleship Arizona, which still sits at the bottom of Pearl Harbor with more than 1,000 sailors entombed inside.
Instead, he was on the U.S.S. Nevada. And his battle station was the searchlight platform on the main mast of the battleship.
"I had a view of the whole harbor," he told the handful of elderly veterans and community members who came to the public ceremony at the Legion Post on Belgrade Avenue.
Sehe described the Japanese bombers and torpedo planes sweeping across the sky, hitting the airfields and relentlessly pounding the moored battleships. Only Sehe's Nevada got underway that day, shooting down a quartet of enemy planes before intentionally running aground to avoid being sunk in the main harbor channel.
Paradis was at the submarine base about a mile from the harbor, planning an outing with another sailor from his hometown of Marshall.
"He and I were going to go to Honolulu to a movie," Paradis said. "Well, we didn't get there."
He saw the explosions at Pearl Harbor, but the submarines were untouched by the attack. The sailors there were initially instructed to prepare for a possible invasion.
"'All men report to the armory to collect rifles,'" Paradis said, echoing the order that he heard that day. "I never did shoot the gun. In fact, I didn't know how to load the darn thing."
His expertise was ship engines, and he was soon put to work on the Northampton, which was one of the cruisers largely assigned to protect the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise. Paradis was with the Enterprise's task force at the Battle of Midway, the first decisive victory by the Americans in the war and the battle that crippled the Japanese navy.
The naval battles continued throughout 1942 before Northampton suffered its fatal blows on Nov. 30 at the Battle of Tassafaronga. Paradis was reassigned to a destroyer and continued serving through December of 1945.
Sehe remembers well his first day in the Navy -- Thanksgiving Day, 1940 -- which started with a broken promise.
"They promised a damn turkey, and I got there, all they had was coffee and beans," he said.
But the impact of Sehe's military service is unmistakable. He said the lessons he learned guided him through the rest of his life, and the G.I. bill provided him with educational opportunities that resulted in a doctorate in zoology and nearly a doctorate in botany, which he didn't complete because of the research thesis his professor wanted him to pursue.
"The professor wanted me to measure the effect of wind on celery stalks. I said, 'The hell with that.'"
It's maybe difficult for a guy to get excited about celery stalks after everything Sehe had seen starting at age 17 when he enlisted. Once the Nevada was repaired and overhauled, it defended convoys crossing the Atlantic with munitions and supplies. It fired the first shots of D-Day, hitting German positions along Utah beach and as much as 20 miles inland.
It also was assigned to eliminate huge German guns that were keeping the Allies from using the port at Cherbourg.
"The Nevada went in there and we silenced the guns," Sehe said.
The ship did similar work against German guns over the Port of Toulon in the south of France, then sailed again through the Panama Canal and provided pre-invasion bombardment of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Off of Okinawa in March of 1945, the Nevada received a direct hit by a kamikaze plane which killed 11 sailors and injured nearly 50.
"I wasn't hit," Sehe said. "Close. But close doesn't count."
The life lessons from those days are many, according to Sehe.
"A lot of people say 'Forget the past. You can't change the past. It's done.' But I live in the past."
He spends some time each day writing, including in a journal he calls "One Man's Walk Through World War II."
"It's about 3 inches thick now," he said.
His conclusion is that people have an obligation to recognize their talents and then use them to the best of their ability. And if everyone does that, amazing results are possible.
He saw that happen in the most difficult of circumstance aboard the Nevada at dawn on Dec. 7, 1941. The attack was such a surprise and came so suddenly that many of the boys didn't get their uniform fully on before attempting to fight back.
"Half-trained, half-dressed teenagers responding to their responsibility," Sehe said. "They didn't stop and think, 'What should I do?' They acted."
Less than four years later, with millions of other soldiers and sailors joining them and the nation unified behind the war effort, they won.
"It's just like aboard a ship," Sehe said. "The captain all the way down, each has a distinct responsibility and, together, they can accomplish something. ... But we all have to work together."
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