GJ residents remember Pearl Harbor to atomic bomb
Evie Smith wasn’t a sailor, soldier, nurse or even a Rosie the riveter.
Seventy years ago, the Hawaii native and now Grand Junction resident was a young 21-year-old who was spending a quiet Sunday morning innocently riding her horse on the hills that overlook Pearl Harbor.
At the time, she lived on a pineapple plantation owned and operated by her family.
The events of Dec. 7, 1941, made for a day forever etched in her mind, not only because it was such a horrendous attack or because then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told her the day would live in infamy. It’s because she had a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing, and she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
“We knew pretty well that something was different than usual,” the 91-year-old recalled. “When we came home, there was a young man shot in our front yard ... and this is pretty early on Sunday.”
The attack wasn’t just the day that will live in historic infamy, or the day World War II began for the nation. It was the first day of a long and bloody four-year war that many everyday Americans, including some who live in the Grand Valley, would experience up close and personal.
For them, forgetting isn’t an option. Despite the long years since, many never have told their stories before, even to their own families.
Now, as some of them enter their 10th decade in life, they’re telling the stories of their part in the war because they don’t want others to forget, either. While each may have played relatively minor roles in various events of the war, collectively they prove why they deserve to be called “the greatest generation.”
THAT FIRST DAY
For Smith, Dec. 7, 1941, began even before any bombs or torpedoes were dropped by the nearly 200 Japanese Mitsubishi Zeros that attacked in the first wave that Sunday morning.
From her vantage point high on top of her family’s hill, Smith had a panoramic view of much of the southern side of Oahu, the Hawaiian island that has several military installations, from Schofield Barracks to the west to Hickam Field in the east, including all of Pearl Harbor and its famous Battleship Row.
“That morning, it was so quiet and nice because they had called off maneuvers, but we didn’t know that,” Smith said. “You could get up to the water tanks and look right down to Pearl Harbor. You could see all the smoke, all that stuff that was going on, but you still didn’t know what was going on. It was just so frightening.”
Seconds before Smith heard the first explosions, Don Brown was starting his day deep inside one of those ships on Battleship Row.
Unlike Smith, Brown couldn’t see a thing even though he was right in the middle of it. When the first torpedoes hit his ship, the USS West Virginia, Brown and the other men on board scrambled to their duty stations.
By then, however, it was too late.
“The first part of the story should be when we came into Pearl Harbor on Dec. 6,” he said. “All hatches were open and everything. We expected nothing. It was wide open. The next morning, it was after breakfast when the Japs attacked. I was in the bathroom when the first torpedoes hit.”
The West Virginia was moored broadside to the USS Tennessee, which was sitting in front of the USS Arizona, the ship that sank with 1,177 men on board.
Brown’s own ship saw many dead, too. A total of 106 men on the West Virginia died that day, and Brown might have been one of them if someone — he has no idea who — hadn’t carried him off.
After making his way to the upper decks, another torpedo struck the ship, knocking him out. The next thing he remembers is waking up days later in a hospital bed.
“We got word to abandon ship. There were quite a few guys trying to go up the ladder at the same time. You couldn’t see because the lights were out, and there was a mob there running over each other,” Brown said.
“I went up to the second deck ... another guy and I sat on a mess table ... waiting for the attack to be over,” he added. “I came to a couple days later. The guy who was sitting next to me, I never saw him again. A torpedo or a bomb exploded close to us, and the repair crew found (me) ..., and they didn’t see him.”
Brown would be reassigned to shore duty after the attack for the duration of the war, but his ship went on to participate in other famous battles. Even though the West Virginia sank that day, it later was raised and would play a role in numerous other battles, including Iwo Jima, the liberation of the Philippines and Okinawa, the bloodiest battle of the Pacific.
The West Virginia also would be the only U.S. naval vessel to be present at the start of the war and the end. It was part of the armada of Allied ships that accepted Japan’s surrender in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.
ON TO WAR
Jack Myers was a radio operator on the Navy cruiser USS Vincennes, home ported near New York City, when those Zeros attacked Pearl Harbor.
At the time, the ship was ever on the lookout for German U-boats and helping escort cargo ships to England as part of FDR’s Lend-Lease program, which allowed the U.S. to supply the war that already had begun against Adolph Hitler and his Nazi troops.
Because the Japanese attack had been so devastating to the Pacific fleet, the U.S. Navy was forced to divert numerous ships from its Atlantic command to the Pacific. Myers’ ship was one of them.
The first six months of the war would be hell for Myers.
His first mission in the Pacific would be a famous one. Unbeknownst to him until after his ship left port in San Francisco, the USS Vincennes was assigned to help escort the task group that launched a daring raid in April 1942 over the skies of Japan, later to be known as the Doolittle Raid.
Though the raids achieved little militarily, its impact back home was tremendous. Japan was reachable, the war was winnable, and everyone knew it.
“It was a morale booster for the nation,” said Myers, who eventually served 22 years in the Navy. “Everybody that you talked to after it got out said, ‘We showed ’em. We’re not dead yet.’ It was elated, very elated.”
His ship’s next major battle came a few months later at Midway Island. It was a turning point in the early war, one that stopped the Japanese expansion and started the Allied strategy of island hopping across the vast Pacific.
Unfortunately for Myers, one of the next major stops in that strategy, Guadalcanal and the Savo Islands, proved devastating to the Navy generally and Myers personally.
On Aug. 7, 1942, U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal, attacking newly entrenched Japanese soldiers. Myers’ ship, along with several others, was providing cover from the sea while that invasion took place, all the while waiting for the Japanese fleet that was sure to arrive.
By 2 a.m. two days later, it did.
“At 2 o’clock in the morning, the Japanese fleet hit,” Myers said, telling a story he had never told in the 70 years since, even to his wife and children. “That’s when they wiped out the Vincennes, the Quincy, the Astoria, the Canberra. We took a major defeat there. They had us encircled. We couldn’t go anywhere. They blew the hell out of us down there.”
When the battle was over, Myers and hundreds of other men found themselves in the water, and his memory of the next 24 hours is cloudy, and for good reason.
That’s when the sharks came.
More than 320 men on the Vincennes died that morning, more than 1,000 overall, but no one knows how many were killed by sharks.
“There would be wounded, and the blood would be flowing,” said Myers, who had nightmares about that battle for years afterward. “Sharks smell it. They always knew where a human being was, and they were looking for food. No matter what you were doing, you saw the sharks around you. You were so damned scared, you didn’t remember a lot of things.”
ORPHANS OF THE PACIFIC
Most people don’t remember that while the rest of the nation was regrouping from the attack on Pearl Harbor and declaring war on the Japanese and Germans, Americans were already in the midst of a long battle in the Philippines.
A few hours after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they attacked Clark Field and other military sites on the South Pacific islands. American service members, including Grand Junction resident Quentin Pershing DeVore, did the best they could to fight them off.
Though some had gotten off the island, such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his entourage, many others weren’t allowed to leave.
“There were 40-some of us who were technicians, and we were on a list to go to Australia, and he (MacArthur) said we couldn’t go because it would be letting the Filipino people down,” DeVore said. “That’s why I had to serve three years in prison camp.”
One ship that did get away was the USS Otus, a submarine tender based at Mariveles Harbor at the southern tip of the Bataan peninsula. Grand Junction resident Zane McMahan was a diver based aboard that ship, which ended up spending the duration of the war servicing U.S. submarines at Milne Bay in New Guinea.
“If they (the submarines) were gone six to eight weeks, they were presumed lost,” McMahan said. “They kept it pretty quiet because ... the high rate of kills (were) made by submarines in the war.”
His ship didn’t return to the Philippines until the islands were liberated three years later.
Meanwhile, the battle for the Philippines raged on. For months, U.S. and Filipino troops fought off the Japanese as best they could, all the while waiting for relief that never came.
DeVore worked the Clark Field air-control tower when the attack started. But like so many others, he became an infantryman. For the next few months, he fought not only the Japanese, but starvation, malaria and tuberculosis.
“We had set up front lines, temporary front lines several times, but too many Japanese, they just pushed us out,” he said. “The area below us had been captured, and we sort of knew it because all the shelling and noise had quit. They gave us a chance to surrender. We took a vote and decided we’d had enough of it. It was all unanimous.”
When DeVore talks about what happened next, it takes a moment to realize he’s talking about the infamous Bataan Death March, when thousands of American soldiers were forced to walk about 70 miles to quickly fashioned prisoner-of-war camps in the southern part of the peninsula. Many didn’t survive the journey.
“Our instructions were to get on the road and keep marching,” he said. “They told us that if we kept marching, they wouldn’t bother us. They didn’t, but the ones that got sick and got down and couldn’t go, they just shot them or bayonetted them. I made it all the way in about three days. I never did give up.”
Of the 300 in DeVore’s adopted infantry squadron, 20 survived.
The ensuing three years were difficult ones. Starvation, disease, death ruled. Each day was a struggle to survive. But just as things were looking their darkest, DeVore got a lucky break. The Japanese realized he had experience as a farmer, growing up on a farm in eastern Colorado. They put him to work growing crops for the Japanese army.
While that work wasn’t easy, it did afford him something he hadn’t much seen in the early months of his imprisonment: food.
“If I plowed a sweet potato or a casaba, I’d put it up in the manifold of the tractor. In about two rounds (of the field) it was cooked. I’d eat it on the opposite side of the field,” he said. “We did (talk about escape), but they’d put us in 10-man groups. If one man escaped, they’d kill the other nine.”
Being caught eating that food by his Japanese guards would have meant an automatic death sentence.
Life for DeVore continued that way until liberation came in October 1944, when MacArthur finally returned.
THE MARCH ACROSS EUROPE
On the opposite side of the world another war was raging, and three area residents were right in the middle of it.
Though Grand Junction residents Art Gilbert and Ernest Anderson were on adjacent beaches on June 6, 1944, during D-Day, they didn’t know it. One was a tank driver who hit Utah Beach in Normandy, and the other, a combat engineer, was on Omaha Beach. Both fought their way, town by town, across France and into Germany.
Hitting the beach at Normandy on D-Day was by far the hardest part of it all, the two said.
“We were sittin’ like clay pigeons. You don’t know whether the bombs are going to tear (the landing craft) up,” Anderson said.
“If anybody tells you he wasn’t frightened, he wasn’t there,” Gilbert added. “Everybody’s scared, and I’m sure that the Germans were, too.”
Once they had established a beachhead on the French coast, they began their long march across Europe, Gilbert with the 1st Army commanded by Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges, and Anderson with the 3rd under Lt. Gen. George S. Patton.
Eventually, the two would come close to each other again, near a small Belgian town called Bastogne, where the third local resident, longtime Grand Junction surgeon Dr. Joseph Merrill, was busy treating wounded soldiers.
“I’ll never forget one intersection,” Merrill said. “Somebody had taken a dead German soldier, I remember he had red hair, propped him up with a gun. People learn to live with death. You get hardened to it.”
Though none of the three were inside the lines later to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, they each played a role in relieving the 101st Airborne Division that had been surrounded during the Germans’ last major offensive in December 1944.
Anderson’s tank group and the rest of Patton’s army, which was operating to the south, would march 100 miles to break the German lines near the Belgian town.
He still has the 3-inch-by-5-inch card that Patton gave his troops on Christmas Day that year. On one side was the famous prayer Patton ordered to be written for better weather. On the other, Patton wrote a Christmas message to his troops.
After that battle was over, the trio continued their steady march into Germany, but only Gilbert made it as far as Berlin.
“That was the first time an invading army had crossed the Rhine into Germany since Napoleon in 1803,” Merrill said. “That was really something.”
Not long after American troops arrived in the capital city, however, they were ordered to retreat. The Allied command wanted to give Soviet troops the honor of getting there first.
“After they made us pull back, there were so many people, and most of them female ... they had to get away from the Russians,” Gilbert said. “So many people got on that bridge, they sunk the damn thing. We tried to fish a lot of them out who couldn’t swim. A lot of them drowned trying to get away.”
Along the way, all three men helped liberate numerous concentration and prisoner-of-war camps.
Anderson still has the hand-whittled cane one American pilot gave him; Merrill has the unforgettable memories of treating the prisoners.
“The soldiers were, all of them, pretty emaciated,” Merrill said. “I remember one Russian prisoner that we liberated in this camp. He just ate and ate and ate. He ate so much, he regurgitated, and he died from it. He had acute gastric dilatation. He just gorged himself.”
A BLOODY END
The last major battle of the war was waged on a small Japanese island called Okinawa, about 360 miles south of mainland Japan.
While thousands of soldiers died in that battle on both sides, making it the bloodiest of the Pacific campaign, Grand Junction resident Joe Ruzycki was busy building an air field near the middle of the island that was to serve as the main staging area for the planned invasion of the Japanese islands.
The battle raged for months and claimed the lives of about 12,500 Americans, 110,000 Japanese and 150,000 Okinawans.
That battle was enough to persuade U.S. officials and President Harry S. Truman that if the Japanese would be so determined in their defense of Okinawa, imagine the lives that might be lost in an attack on Japan itself.
“They ran into a hell of a lot of trouble because the Japs had really done a great job on their defenses for the island,” Ruzycki said. “They let all the troops get in, but, boy, they were set up.”
As a result, while Ruzycki was busy building runways for Allied planes in the humid Okinawa climate in August 1945, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Japanese surrendered shortly thereafter.
“When the peace was declared, it was a danger area around in the open,” Ruzycki said. “Everybody that fought would fire a shot. Why, there were flares going up, and it was a happy mess, really.”