Opinion > Star Staff
'Day of Infamy' plays again
By Patti Pfeiffer, Life's a Trip
This time was different, strange, unique. Long after I'd moved on, he kept tugging at me. The gold lettering kept calling me back...
And I gave in, gladly returning. Introducing myself, I asked if he minded sharing his story/history with me. The elderly gentleman kindly agreed.
He recounted the details like only an eyewitness, a survivor, could: the explosive sounds, surrealistic sights, noxious smells, the confusion, utter chaos, the death and destruction.
"There were so many dead bodies they didn't know what to do with them. They were stacking them up on the dock until they could be properly taken care of," recalls Fred Jefferson.
He knows. He was there. He unfortunately remembers.
The young Navy communications officer had been offshore the night before, returning at 4 in the morning to Battleship Row. Bedding down on his cot in the ammo clipping room of the USS Maryland, he had drifted off to sleep when a panicky voice pierced his peace, changing his life - and the world.
"All handsn man your battle station!" The urgent tone left no doubt. This was no drill.
"My battle station was up where the admiral's bridge was. So I had to walk to the super structure and on the deck. I could see torpedo planes coming. It looked like it was raining. The ocean water was popping up, but instead of rain, it was bullets.
"The Oklahoma was sinking. It was a blessing to us that the Oklahoma tied up to us only few days before. She got hit with torpedoes and saved us."
The battleship Oklahoma capsized, taking 423 crew members with her, forever burying them at sea.
At 97 years old, Mr. Jefferson of Macon, Ga., vividly remembers the surprise attack on United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
The Japanese sneak attack by 353 fighters, bombers and torpedo planes in two waves damaged eight Navy battleships and sunk four, killed more than 2,400 Americans, wounded 1,282 and lured America in World War II.
Dec. 7, 1941 - truly "a date which will live in infamy."
"You've heard the saying, 'cuss like a sailor?' Well, there was swearing worse than any swearing I'd ever heard. It was utter confusion. Sailors were running around getting their guns. Ships were on fire. Orders to abandon ship sent men into the water. Spilled oil from damaged ships had caught fire, and so many in the water were overtaken and didn't make it."
Though he lost buddies and witnessed so much death, destruction and mayhem, Mr. Jefferson says Pearl Harbor doesn't haunt him.
"I have the ability to put bad things out of my mind, and I've been able to do that with Pearl Harbor too. But they won't let me forget about it," he adds with a laugh.
This time of year he's often asked to publicly replay his memories, sharing with school kids and speaking to organizations and associations. And then there are survivor reunions too.
"Sure, the memories come back - especially around now - but it's not something I dwell on."
He shares that our country learned a valuable lesson with Pearl Harbor, one he hopes is never forgotten or wasted.
"When we went into this we were not prepared. The British were using radar. We had them installed on a few ships, but no one knew how to use them. We had anti-aircraft machine guns but didn't use them effectively because we used them as control shoulder-fire instead. We were not prepared then.
"I hope our nation never gets unprepared. We need to stay in a state of readiness because you never know what is going to happen, or when."
No wonder the elderly gentleman sitting on the bench caught my attention. It wasn't his beaming smile or the brightness in his eye. It was his cap. Noticing he was a veteran, I stopped, shook his hand, bid farewell then walked away. Yet he kept pulling me back. The gold lettering set against the dark blue color of his cap kept luring me - Pearl Harbor Survivor. There was good reason. Shaking the hand of a Pearl Harbor survivor was a first. He's a rarity. And a true national treasure.
Patti Pfeiffer is a Star Local News columnist, freelance writer and author. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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