Old men in Hawaiian shirts are not usually in a hurry to get where they’re going. Chances are, they’ve been there before.
These men are different. They’re ready for a trip. They can’t wait.
“We’re gonna take a vote and see who’s shirt is the prettiest,” said Cass Phillips.
The Hawaiian prints – full of flowers and fruit – are worn almost like a uniform. A solemn tribute with a wink of pride. Seventy years later, and these Pearl Harbor survivors are still bound together by that day on the island.
One of the men rolls up his sleeve to reveal a shy tattoo. A hula dancer sways in faded green ink. She beckons back to another time. A time of ukeleles and sunsets. And bombs.
The men were younger then. Their uniforms were different. On Dec. 7, 1941, no one here was a tourist.
“The reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor is because I was there,” Jim Landis joked with his comrades. “They were after me.”
As part of Pearl Harbor Survivors Association 138, these men are plotting a return to Hawaii. The group plans to be on the island for the December observance of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. They want the opportunity to reflect.
“Just look it over,” Phillips said. “And kind of relive it in my mind.”
JAZZ AT THE LUAU
Holly Shelton is an accomplished jazz singer. Sometimes she sings instead of talking. It can be disarming, but then everyone within earshot will begin to bob their head to the rhythm of her voice, almost dancing to the beat of the conversation.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Shelton was not doing much dancing. Instead, she hobbled across the open expanse of Pensacola’s Naval Aviation Museum.
“My conga player dropped a mixer on my foot,” she said, explaining the limp.
Shelton walked with her friend George Mills through the museum. They made their way past the exhibits to the library. It was a hurricane that
brought these two together.
“The hotel I sang at blew away,” Shelton recalled, explaining how a natural disaster had led her to get a day job.
She found employment at a retirement community. Although she had no experience working with the elderly, the musician took to it quickly. She also took to Mills, a Pearl Harbor survivor.
“I just fell in love with him,” Shelton said. “He would come to my yoga classes. Here is this 80-year-old guy with his walker willing to get down on the floor and do yoga with me.”
Eventually, she began accompanying Mills to meetings with fellow veterans. Shelton got to know the local Pearl Harbor survivors group. She made new friends and soaked up their living history.
“I was just fascinated,” Shelton said.
Pearl Harbor was a defining moment in American history. And for those who were there, the event was a defining moment in their lives. After listening to Mills and his friends talk, Shelton got an idea.
“At one of the meetings, it occurred to me like a sledgehammer,” she said. “Wow, I bet they want to go.”
Shelton set about planning a trip for Mills and the rest of the local Pearl Harbor veterans. Along with co-organizer retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Phillips, she has undertaken the Pearl Harbor Honor Flight Initiative. Under their watch, a band of a half dozen veterans will return to Hawaii.
“They want to say goodbye,” said Phillips. “I’m sure there will be tears and a lot of deep thoughts.”
As Shelton and Mills made their way into the museum library, the pair was greeted by some of the other veterans planning to make the journey in December. Like Mills, each wore a Pearl Harbor Survivor hat and a Hawaiian shirt. After a round of hellos, everyone made themselves comfortable at a large round table.
Even hidden away in the library, a group such as this – Shelton calls them “living treasures” – tends to attract a lot of admirers in a place like the Naval Aviation Museum. Onlookers quietly paused and listened as the men talked between themselves. A film crew captured their conversation.
“This is a piece of history,” said Liz Watkins, who’s film crew is donating its time to document the group’s return to Hawaii. “Every time I’m with them I learn something new about that day.”
Shelton offered everyone water and dumped a bag of chocolates onto the table. As the men dove into the pile of miniature candy bars, they discussed their time on the island. And why they wanted to return.
“I want to go back and say goodbye to all of those people,” Mills said, reflecting on his fellow U.S. servicemen who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor. “I want to go back there to the 10-10 Dock and say it from there.”
SUCKER PUNCH ON A SUNDAY
As a 22-year-old, Frank Emond was a French horn player in the Navy’s band. The sailor was stationed aboard the battleship U.S.S. Pennsylvania, docked at Pearl Harbor. He was enjoying his time in Hawaii.
“We played tennis a lot,” he recalled.
The night before the Japanese attacked, Emond’s band performed. They were joined by the band stationed on the U.S.S. Arizona.
“They were all friends of ours,” Emond said. “The next morning, we lost the whole band in the Arizona.”
Just before eight on Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, Emond remembers looking up in the sky and seeing a line of planes entering the harbor. Something dropped from the lead plane, exploding on Ford Island. The large red circles on the sides of the planes confirmed the sailor’s fears: the Japanese were attacking.
“I didn’t realize, actually, that we were under attack,” said Jim Landis.
As the rear pilot of an SBD Dauntless dive bomber, Landis was on Ford Island when the attack began. The devastation was swift.
“I ran over to where the Utah was and watched her roll over,” he recounted.
Mills remembers being sheltered by a large crane when the Japanese began their onslaught. He watched with others in his crew as the planes devastated the American base.
“The Oglala just folded up and went right down,” Mills said, describing another U.S. ship succumbing to the attack. “It went down real easy.”
More than 350 planes attacked Pearl Harbor. The Japanese eventually sunk four battleships, in addition to destroying 188 U.S. aircraft and a host of other American vessels.
The island base was not prepared for the attack. Most of the planes were not loaded with ammunition. Most of the men were not armed. None of them were armed with anything sufficient enough to bring down the swarm of attacking Japanese Zeros.
“All we had was a .45,” said Bill Braddock, the only Marine amongst the local vets.
But there were exceptions. Nearly 30 Japanese planes were brought down.
Once Landis realized the harbor was under attack, he ran to his plane and climbed to the hatch. As he was on the opposite side of the plane than the cockpit’s latch, the pilot had to reach over the top in order to open it up. As a result, Landis was shot in the hand.
When he had managed to pull himself into the plane, Landis loaded its gun – a considerably more physically demanding task than handling modern weaponry – and began firing at the diving Japanese aircraft.
“How I did it I don’t know, cause I was wounded,” Landis said. “I don’t know if I hit ’em, but I was shooting.”
When it was over, nearly 2,500 American servicemen had been killed, with more than 1,200 wounded. The Japanese fared considerably better, losing less than 70 men.
It was a humbling attack. One that is seared into the memory of those that survived.
“The only thing I remember is the smell,” said Emond. “I can still remember the smell of the burnt flesh.”
Braddock recalled watching men drill holes in the side of the U.S.S. Oklahoma in an attempt to create escape routes for their comrades.
“And the guys waving hands, trying to get out,” the Marine said. “And they didn’t get ’em all out. I can still see them.”
The vets grew silent, letting the recollections rest. After the library lull lingered a moment, Shelton suggested taking a break. The men seemed relieved and stood to stretch their legs.
Across the library, Bill Phillips tried to lighten the heavy room. He pointed into a glass case at an old World War II life preserver and explained why people referred to it as a Mae West vest.
Phillips is excited about taking the vets back to Pearl Harbor. He considers Hawaii to be a sort of second home.
While in the Air Force, Phillips was stationed for a time in Hawaii. His office was located in an area that had been hit during the attack. A flight of stairs still remains riddled with bullet holes.
“Every time I walked up the stairs to go to my office I’d see these things left over from December seventh,” he said.
The men had been told of the still-visible signs of the attack earlier. They seemed pleased that some physical reminder remained unchanged by time.
“Present day?” Braddock had asked. “I’d like to see that.”
“You will see it,” Shelton told him.
SLEEPING GIANT’S DREAM
The Greatest Generation is growing old. As the years pass, more and more leave us with only the sepia-toned postcard they’ve drawn in the culture’s sub-conscious. Most of the men in the local Pearl Harbor survivors group are considering this trip to Hawaii to be their last.
“It’ll be the last one for me, I’m coming up on 90,” said Jay Carraway, co-founder and president emeritus of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association 138.
Phillips said he thinks the trip will be good for the men.
“They want to say goodbye,” he said. “I think it will bring a lot of them closure.”
“It’s difficult for some of them,” said Shelton.
While most of the men in the library agreed that a visit to Pearl Harbor would offer some kind of closure, Cass Phillips said he wasn’t looking for closure. The veteran said that while he could appreciate what’s sure to be a moving experience, he did not seek closure because he didn’t feel anything from his past was unresolved.
The World War II veteran views the horrors of war he experienced through a very practical lens. War is hell. For everyone.
“I don’t feel I need any closure,” Phillips said. “I never had any personal animosity towards the Japanese soldiers. They were doing the same thing as we were.”
After the bombing, President Franklin Roosevelt said that day would “live in infamy.” While in the library, the Pearl Harbor survivors discussed how the attack on Pearl Harbor affected the nation going into the future.
“It seems to me that since that day we have been constantly in a war status,” said Emond.
“Right,” agreed Braddock.
Mills explained how the commander of Japan’s naval fleet during Pearl Harbor knew his actions could only lead to an eventual defeat. General Isoroku Yamamoto, a Harvard graduate, had spent time in the states and knew his enemy well.
“He knew, in his own heart, not to battle with the United States, that he could never win,” said Mills. “Strategically, he was the smartest man in Japan. General Yamamoto knew that he was merely starting something that he could never finish. Although he had won this initial battle, it meant nothing.”
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, America declared war on Japan and entered into World War II. In August 1945, following Germany’s defeat a few months earlier, the U.S. forced Japan’s surrender by dropping two atomic bombs. The bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing between 150,000 and 250,000 Japanese.
“His statement was, I believe,” Phillips said. “‘You’re going to awaken a sleeping giant.’”
ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE
While they will never forget that December day in Hawaii, the Pearl Harbor veterans fear that others will. They are afraid that younger generations will not learn of a day that shaped their lives so profoundly.
“I’m surprised that some young people know what it’s all about,” said Cass Phillips. “There are a lot of people that don’t know what you’re talking about.”
As the men exited the library and began walking through the museum, people seemed to recognize immediately who they were. Museum visitors followed the group quietly at a distance. They took pictures and listened as the men swapped stories.
Once these men are gone, there will still be a local Pearl Harbor survivor. Landis enjoys pointing that out, because that survivor is his old plane.
Following Pearl Harbor, the Dauntless continued on into war. After putting in her time, the plane was sent back to the states where it was used as a training vessel for new pilots. The aircraft eventually wound up in the bottom of Lake Michigan, until it was more recently brought to the surface and restored for exhibition.
Landis ran his hand along the planes riveted side. To listeners’ amazement, he described how bullet holes had pocked its body, how he had scrambled into the cockpit and began firing at the Zeros.
As Landis retold his Pearl Harbor war story, the rest of the survivors huddled together off to the side. The men have been getting together for years.
“They do know each other fairly well,” said Bill Phillips.
The trip will offer another opportunity for the old friends to pal around. In addition to visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial, the men are also planning to enjoy some of Hawaii’s more leisure offerings. They’ll be visiting the famed Royal Hawaiian Hotel, staying at the Navy lodge and eating at a submarine base.
Braddock rolled up his shirtsleeve and grinned. The hula dancer’s grass skirt and lay call the men back to the islands. Now faded by a lifetime of years, she was surely discovered dancing in the sun-drenched daydreams of a Louisiana farm boy stationed far away from home.
This hula girl still enjoys those Pacific sunsets. The Pearl Harbor Survivors are looking forward to seeing her dance again.
“I really enjoyed my time in the islands,” Cass Phillips had said back in the library. “Except for the start of World War II, I don’t know of any place I’d rather be than the island.”
Pensacola’s local Pearl Harbor survivors will travel to Hawaii in December in order to observe the 70th anniversary ceremony of the Japanese attack. The group is raising money to fund the week-long venture.
Anyone who wishes to donate to the Pearl Harbor Honor Flight Initiative may do so at PearlHarborHonorFlight.com. On line donations may be made using Paypal. Donors may also drop off cash or a check at any Regions Bank. Checks may also be mailed to Regions Bank, c/o Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Chapter 138, Jay Carraway, President Emeritus, 3377 Gulf Breeze Parkway, Gulf Breeze, FL 32536.
The organization is a 501(c)(3) group and all gifts and donations are tax deductible.