Saturday is the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan.
It was a day of treachery that ended with 2,403 Americans killed, 1,178 wounded, 21 ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet either damaged or sunk, and the Casus belli that launched the United States into World War II.
Many survivors of that day have since died, but Bill Howell, 89, of Diamond Springs, is still with us.
The last, he says, of the Pearl Harbor survivors in El Dorado County.
The Sunday morning attack
Howell said he had a bird’s-eye view of the attack as he was aboard the USS Phoenix, a light cruiser moored at Pearl Harbor. Only 17 at the time and trained as a helmsman, he was also the one who prepared the rough ship’s log for that day. The memory of what happened etched in paper as well as his mind.
“I wrote in the log that morning, ‘The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.’ I was so busy watching them, I had a hard time writing anything,” he recalled.
“It was just before 8 a.m. in the morning when I saw a series of explosions all along battleship row. I thought an oil barge had exploded but that wasn’t it. A torpedo had hit the USS Oklahoma and then a dive bomber came down and hit the USS Arizona and the vessel along side of her.”
Howell rushed to the bridge, which was his assigned station, as he heard the alarm sound for General Quarters.
He estimated 80 Japanese planes came in the first wave although they were part of a larger fleet that was attacking outlying areas of Oahu. Caught by surprise, few American planes made it into the air to mount a defense. All around them was a mass of black dots of anti-aircraft fire from the ships that were able to fire and then explosions from the ships that were hit.
“We were only saved because the ship was moored alone at the buoy … We were lying in a line right behind the battleships Nevada and Arizona and a string of other battleships were lined up directly in line with our stern,” he said. “This gave me a full view of the attack as it started. As the torpedo planes made their drop, they swung in line with us and headed for our stern and flew right past us at bridge level.
“Destroyers to our starboard quarter were cutting themselves free and drifting and firing as best they could,” he said. “But the planes were so low we couldn’t fire flat because would have hit the navy yard. We had to wait until they climbed to around 11 o’clock. We couldn’t get the ammunition from the ammo dump to the guns because we only had one boiler on and there was no power to transfer it. It took at least 10 minutes to get the steam up enough to open up the magazines and get the shells up to the guns. The gyroscope also wasn’t working so everything had to be done by hand until it was working again. Luckily the only damage to our ship was from a few rounds of small arms fire into the superstructure. However our five-inch anti-aircraft gun on our starboard side exploded at the end of the barrel due to rapid-firing.”
At the beginning of the second attack, Howell said their ship was ordered to get underway as soon as possible and to head for sea down the south channel. That was around 11:30 a.m.
“We were behind the USS Nevada. She was hit by a torpedo and ran aground. As we were passing the USS Arizona, she was a mass of flames and smoke. Just then we came under attack from dive bombers on the port side as we steamed at a high rate of speed out of the harbor. The USS Detroit was in the lead as both ships headed for the entrance of the harbor. Heading out of the channel, the USS Nevada was now listing badly and was down by the bow. Large holes and damage could be seen as the we passed them. The men on the deck were waving at us and yelling to go get the … and sink them,” he said.
“We then approached the sub net at the entrance to the harbor. (A sub net is made of steel and stretched across the entrance to the harbor to keep submarines out.) The net was closed and the captain signaled the tug to open the gate or we would blast our way out. The net tender was afraid if they open it, another sub would enter the harbor. We got them to open and raced for sea.”
Once out in open sea they met up with Admiral Halsey aboard the USS Enterprise and several heavy cruisers.
“The Phoenix and the Detroit then formed up with the task force to search for the Japanese fleet, which we believed to be to the south of Hawaii,” said Howell. “But after three days at full speed and course changes, we returned to Pearl Harbor because the ships were running out of fuel. Our destroyers were empty and we were down to the last drop also. The harbor was still in flames and a real mess.”
Howell added that it was a good thing they went in the wrong direction. “If we had gone in the other direction, they would have gotten our carriers,” he said.
Next stops in a military career
Howell said the Phoenix was next ordered to San Francisco with three or four other ships to ferry women, children and non-essential personnel from Hawaii back to the United States. While there they also paid a visit to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard to replace the gun that was damaged.
When that duty was completed, Howell said they picked up some other ships and headed to Australia, then to the Indian Ocean and later to Java.
“In all, I was in nine major battles,” said Howell, “including ones in the Coral Sea, Leyte Gulf, New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal.”
Lucky enough to come out of the war unscathed, Howell stayed in the Navy until 1946. Then he went into the Coast Guard for a few years before being called back into the Navy. His last military stint was in the Army where he worked as an intelligence officer in Germany bringing people out behind the Iron Curtain. Later he served in Vietnam, first as an advisor and then as a tug boat captain, where he would haul, at times, eight barges of jelly gas and 155 ammunition up the river. It was in Vietnam where he was exposed to Agent Orange, which caused him to later lose a part of his lung.
Howell said after he retired from 30 years in the military, he went on to be a bailiff/marshal for El Dorado County for several years.
A long timer in El Dorado County, Howell and his wife Nancy have lived here for 45 years. They have two children, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
A former president of the Chamber of Commerce of Camino, in 2003 he was appointed as vice president of the Hangtown 30 Pearl Harbor Association in Placerville. He said he’s also spoken before different groups and high school classes about his military experience and what he went through at Pearl Harbor.
Howell said when he thinks about the attack on Pearl Harbor, he wonders who his Japanese counterpart was on that December day. “I was only 17 years old but I wonder about the young man at the wheel of one of the cruisiers (sic) that lay some 300 miles to our North,” he said. “He must have had thoughts about whether the attack would be a success or failure.”
Asked if the military had an inkling of the coming attack, Howell said, “they knew something because two days before the attack, we had inspections to see if we were up to date. They must have known something when they couldn’t find the Japanese. We were kind of alerted halfway. But when this happened, it was five minutes to 8 in the morning and then they were on top of us.”
His admonition to others, “Please keep America alert.”
Note: The 72nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, and the few remaining survivors of that day, will be honored with a Memorial Service on Saturday, Dec. 7 at 9:55 a.m. at the Veterans Memorial Building, 130 Placerville Drive, Placerville. Everyone is welcome to attend.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.