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Former sailor recalls attack 59 years ago

By Vincent Z. Whaley
Johnson 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 Pearl Harbor.

"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.

Story Copyright © 2000-2004 by Vincent Z. Whaley and the Johnson City Press,
204 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tennessee 37605, 423.929.3111.
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596th Signal Support Co., 97th Signal Battalion
47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division
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