Local survivors remember Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor vet Ralph Jeffers and wife Claire in Oakhurst, N.J. "... Like 9/11," he said. "You never expected it."
Pearl Harbor vet Ralph Jeffers and wife Claire in Oakhurst, N.J. "... Like 9/11," he said. "You never expected it." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 08, 2012

At Pearl Harbor, sailor Ralph Jeffers was eating eggs, bacon, and sausage in the mess hall on the Curtiss about 8 a.m. when he was startled by a loud explosion. He looked through a hatch, saw the battleship Utah listing, then ran topside to man a .50-caliber gun.

On nearby Ford Island, sailor John Walton was on his barracks bunk, reading the Sunday paper, when he heard a dive-bomber's distinctive scream followed by a massive blast.

"No one knew what the hell was going on," he recalls.

A few miles away on Oahu, Marine Pfc. Arthur Goodstone was rousted from a shower by the boom-boom-boom of explosions. He raced outside in a towel just in time to see the face of a low-flying Japanese airman.

"He waved at me, and I waved back," he said.

Dec. 7, 1941 - the date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would live in infamy - is seared into the minds of Jeffers, Walton, and Goodstone, who are among a dwindling number of eyewitnesses to the attack that ushered the United States into World War II.

More than 405,000 Americans died during nearly four years of fighting that ended soon after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

But the first day of the war holds a special place in the nation's history and was highlighted by the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association until it was dissolved last year, due to the age and health of its 2,700 members, who are in their upper 80s and 90s.

The veterans' legacy now is shared by Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors Inc., a 4,000-member nonprofit with chapters in 50 states and several countries.

"It's up to us to make sure they're remembered," said Louella Large, national president of the group, whose late father, Harry Cross, served in the Army at Pearl Harbor.

"We tell their stories as they were told to us and hope someday to have a library stateside where we can put the memorabilia they've given us," said Large, whose group - joined by some survivors - will hold its convention through Saturday in San Diego.

Jeffers, 92, of Oakhurst, N.J.; Walton, 98, of Paterson, N.J.; and Goodstone, 90, of Old Bridge, N.J., plan to attend an informal wreath-laying ceremony at 11 a.m. Friday at the Richard Stockton rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike. The gathering has taken place annually for almost two decades.

The men will pause there at a granite Pearl Harbor monument to reflect on a few hours of their lives 71 years ago.

"We were totally unprepared" for the attack, Goodstone said. "It was a horrendous day."

Dec. 7 began serene and picture-perfect. The sun reflected off the waters of Pearl Harbor, and puffy white clouds drifted overhead. Many service members were away from their ships and planes, attending church, having breakfast, and relaxing in town.

Soon, they would be wondering whether the attack was a prelude to a Japanese invasion.

After the Utah was hit, Jeffers headed to his gun on the deck of the Curtiss, a 527-foot vessel that tends seaplanes and was built by New York Shipbuilding in Camden. It was loaded with fuel and ammunition.

The Utah, also built in Camden and commissioned at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, had been struck by a torpedo at 8:01 a.m. It rolled and settled hard at the stern.

"We knew the swastika, but not that flaming ball on the Japanese aircraft," said Jeffers, former chairman of the New Jersey Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, who served as an aviation machinist's mate.

He fired a stream of bullets ahead of the planes so they would fly into them.

"The planes were so low, about 100 feet off the water, that you could see the pilots in their cockpits," Jeffers said.

At 9:10 a.m., one of the aircraft - crippled by the Curtiss' fire - crashed into a crane on the deck. It was the first of three the Curtiss was credited with downing.

Ten minutes later, an enemy plane scored a direct hit on the ship, dropping a bomb onto the hangar deck and destroying two observation planes. Twenty-two service members died, and many were wounded.

"Why did they go after the Curtiss?" Jeffers asked. "Why not the submarine pens and ammunition depot? Why not the fuel tanks? Maybe it was because we were putting up a fight."

Some sailors were forced to abandon their ships and swim to Ford Island in the harbor, where Walton was stunned by the heavy destruction.

"I saw the red spots on the wings, the planes dropping bombs, and heard bang, bang, bang" said Walton, a radioman. "Our hangar and all six of our seaplanes were hit.

"The place was a mess," he said. "The bombing was followed by strafing."

Ashore, Goodstone was part of a Marine unit that had been sent to Pearl Harbor to beef up security as the United States and Japan moved closer to war. He had just come off guard duty at a fuel-tank farm across from his barracks and was showering when the attack started.

Outside, he noticed the "big red meatball on the side" of the plane and acknowledged the wave of the Japanese pilot.

"I knew I couldn't stop what he was doing," he said. "It was a thing of the moment. History writes its own stories."

Goodstone quickly donned his uniform and picked up a 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle.

"I got off a few rounds, and the bolt came out of the rifle, so I went to the armory and got another rifle," he said. "I took some more potshots at the planes as they went by."

About two hours after it started, the attack was over, and America was set to enter World War II.

Goodstone left the Marines in 1945, married in 1946, worked as a machinist, and had two children, a boy and girl.

Walton, who later served on the Curtiss, left the Navy in 1945, married, and served 32 years as a captain in the Paterson Fire Department.

And Jeffers was married, had five children, and worked as a supervisor of quality assurance for the U.S. Defense Contract Administration.

But the memory of the Dec. 7 they shared in 1941 will never fade.

"Everybody brings it back to my memory each year at this time," Jeffers said. "They ask me to speak at schools or other organizations.

"Dec. 7 was one of the big days of our lives," he said. "It was like 9/11. You never expected it to happen."

If the United States is vigilant, it "won't have to go through that again," said Large, of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors. "If the government remembered the survivors' motto, 'Remember Pearl Harbor, Keep America Alert,' I don't think 9/11 would have happened.

"We need to keep alive the survivors' memory to protect America, and protect our freedom."


Contact Edward Colimore

at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


 

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