HOLOCAUST SUNDAY, Dec. 7, 1941

December, 1941. Mitsuo Fuchida, in the lead fighter plane high over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, radioed back to his aircraft carrier, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” before a single bomb was dropped. It was Japanese for “tiger,” the code word for “complete surprise.” At 7:53 a.m. on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was the most target-rich environment ever witnessed by a fighter pilot in the history of aerial warfare. Ninety-six utterly unsuspecting U.S. warships were docked or moored dead in the water within a 1.25-mile radius of Ford Island in the center of Pearl Harbor, all plump dozing ducks early on a sunny Sunday morning. The only prize targets missing were the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers, the Enterprise, the Saratoga and the Lexington, all providentially out to sea. Battleship row, consisting of the largest warships afloat—seven of the nine battleships in the Pacific Fleet—were rafted up in pairs nearly touching one another bow-to-stern in a straight line just offshore of the southeast shore of Ford Island. They were a broadside target impossible to miss by 350 Japanese dive-bombers, torpedo planes and fighters. Adjacent to the naval base at Pearl, on its southeast side, was Hickam Field with 394 warplanes parked in neat unprotected open rows so that a single strafing run could take out more than a dozen at a time.

Eleven hundred yards due south of the midpoint of battleship row, the heavy cruiser San Francisco, second largest warship in the harbor after the battleships, floated at the dock, stripped of ammo and defenseless in preparation for dry dock the next day. In the bottom bunk of a 10 by 10-foot officer’s stateroom just below the deck and above the waterline, slept Ensign John E. “Jack” Bennett, just graduated from Annapolis the previous February. He hadn’t been there all that long after a double date on the town the night before. He and Annapolis classmate Frank Welsh, serving on the battleship Arizona out in Battleship Row, had escorted two nurses from Queen’s Hospital to dinner at Laui Chai’s, a popular restaurant in Waikiki, followed by cocktails at the Moana Hotel lobby bar. In their haste to catch the last ship tender back to their ships before curfew, Jack had parked his yellow 1934 Buick Phaeton convertible (with the top stuck in the down position) in a “No Parking” zone near the Officers’ Club. Life was good in Honolulu for junior naval officers in December, 1941. They knew war was coming, convinced, as all young soldiers are, that they personally were immortal. They worked hard to prepare for it, but no one in Hawaii thought it was imminent on a party weekend eighteen days before Christmas.

The sound of deep thuds woke Jack. His world was quaking. Bombs and torpedoes were exploding in the harbor. He leaped to the porthole and looked out to see a Japanese Val dive-bomber, its fixed landing gear sporting teardrop wheel pants and a bright orange meatball painted on its fuselage just in front of its tail, strafing sailors running down the dock.

“This is it!” He shouted, as if he had been expecting it, to his roommate.

Topside chaos reigned. ….the air was full of the sound of aircraft engines accelerating in dives, cannon fire both incoming and outgoing, and explosions of bombs and torpedoes. The sky was a mad hornets’ nest of diving Japanese Zeros and Vals with Kate torpedo bombers skimming just above the surface of the Harbor to release their torpedoes. Jack reached up to adjust his ancient helmet just as a piece of white hot shrapnel ricocheted around his gun tub, clipping his thumb right in front of his eyes. Whipping out his handkerchief, he wrapped it around his thumb with hardly a thought. America’s Navy was getting the worst pummeling it had ever gotten, would ever get, and a bloody thumb would not deter young Jack.

Within an hour the enemy planes were gone, but after a one-hour nerve-wracking hiatus a second wave hit, a repeat performance of the first. When the sky grew quiet a second time, Pearl Harbor was a raging inferno with billowing black smoke obscuring vision. All seven battleships were put out of action, with the California, Arizona and Oklahoma resting on the bottom of the Harbor. In all 18 ships were sunk or seriously damaged and 188 airplanes were destroyed and 159 damaged. 2,403 sailors—1,102 of them on the Arizona—and soldiers were dead and 1,178 wounded. Jack’s yellow Buick Phaeton—apparently an irresistible target to the Japanese pilots—also bit the dust, its bullet riddled carcass sat where he had parked it…with a parking ticket under the windshield wiper.

Dead sailors and debris floated all about the harbor. The bloodiest, costliest war in American history had begun with Japan’s sneak attack. For the next three years and eight months Jack Bennett was in the hottest part of those horrors. A year later he was in the Battle of Guadalcanal, the most ferocious sea battle in history, then in all five war patrols on the highly successful submarine, USS Queenfish. Fifty-five years later, after a career in nuclear subs and a hitch in Sacramento on Governor Ronald Reagan’s staff, Jack and I met and became best friends, and fought the greatest battle of all–the one for his soul. What an amazing life he had, thanks to Amazing Grace, and I sure miss him.

Excerpted from NO TIME TO WASTE   Reposted from Dec 7, 2010

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