Former sailor recalls attack 59 years ago
By Vincent Z. Whaley
City Press Staff Writer
(PUBLISHED Thursday, Dec. 7, 2000)
JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. As hundreds of sailors
standing on deck of the USS California
prepared for Sunday morning church services,
William Howard Gillette looked to the sky to
see several aircraft approaching the Hawaiian
island of Oahu.
For a split second, Gillette believed it was
just another drill to prepare sailors for their
country's defense. But when the first bombs
dropped and thick black smoke billowed from
decks of neighboring ships, Gillette and his
comrades starkly realized there would be no
drills held that day.
It was Dec. 7, 1941 the day the Japanese
sneak-attacked America by deploying more than
300 aircraft to bomb the U.S. Naval Base at
"We didn't have time to be shocked or scared,"
Gillette said. "We had to get off that
ship and do our jobs, because the California
had been hit and was sinking."
With 2,388 people killed and 2,000 wounded that
day at Pearl Harbor, Gillette recalled 50 sailors
who perished on the California when a
bomb exploded and set off an ammunition magazine.
A second bomb ruptured the bow plates, and the
battleship settled onto the harbor's muddy floor
with only the super-structure remaining above
the water's surface.
In the end, 98 sailors were killed and 61 were
wounded on the California one
of eight American dreadnoughts among 92 naval
vessels anchored that day in the harbor named
for pearl oysters that once dwelled in its waters.
"I was lucky to be alive," Gillette
said. "We got off that ship as quickly
as we could, and they put us up in a large outdoor
recreation area, where we slept on benches.
In 1944, it was the same place where they held
memorial services on Pearl Harbor Day."
In March 1942, the California was refloated
and dry-docked at Pearl Harbor for repairs.
By the end of the war, the battleship had received
seven Battle Stars for its service. As for Gillette,
he went on to serve in Navy intelligence and
as one of the first frogmen in the Navy Underwater
Demolition Team, which later became known as
the Navy SEALs.
"They were looking for volunteers for prolonged
and hazardous duty, and I took them up on it,"
he said. "To qualify, we had to swim a
mile. They took us out, dropped us into the
water and we had to swim to shore. I didn't
know if I'd make it after that, but I was determined
to make the team.
"It got somewhat better after our initial
training. When we went on missions, we had swimming
fins for our feet and you could swim pretty
faster with those."
In 1991, during the 50th anniversary celebrations
of the Second World War, former Congressman
James H. Quillen presented Gillette with a commemorative
"Remember Pearl Harbor!" medal.
Gillette insists, however, he "did nothing
more than any other man in that war."
"The real heroes stayed over there,"
the 82-year-old veteran said.
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