It was around 8 a.m. in Honolulu on Dec. 7, 1941, and Seaman 1st Class Stuart Hedley was below deck on the USS West Virginia when the alarm sounded. Over the loudspeaker came the words, “Away fire and rescue party.” Hedley raced topside, and as he emerged from below, he saw planes diving from every direction. Pearl Harbor was under attack.
“My commander, Lt. White, was shooting at planes with his .45 mm, and I’m wondering what kind of a war is this?” Hedley told Task & Purpose.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the attack, which claimed the lives of 2,403 Americans, making it one of the deadliest attacks on United States soil, second only to the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
After the West Virginia was hit by a torpedo, Hedley escaped by running along one of the main guns, jumping onto the USS Tennessee nearby, and then into the water, which was engulfed in flames. He came up for air twice, and each time he thought the fire would scorch his lungs, but it didn’t. Eventually, Hedley made it to shore, but as many as 100 of his fellow crewmates died that day.
That same morning, at Kaneohe Naval Base, Japanese warplanes strafed the rows of seaplanes moored or on the ground, recounted Carl Clark, a Navy veteran who at the time served as a steward.
“All of us guys were down on the loading dock, where we couldn’t be hit by the machine gun and the guy looked down at us and he smiled and waved at us as he flew over — the Japanese gunner,” Clark said. “The next time he came over, he knew we were down there, so he decided to have a little fun with us. … He took the machine gun and aimed it down at all of us, and we tried to get through and jammed up the door, and he laughed like hell and put his hands up and waved at us as they flew on down.”
The next day, the United States declared war on Japan, and officially entered World War II. Nearly four years later, the war was over, but it remains a poignant memory for those who survived the attack.
This year, survivors from across the country are returning to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary, among them, Clark, who is 100, and Hedley, who is 95 and has returned multiple times.
Hedley went on to serve 20 years in the Navy, aboard a number of vessels including the USS San Francisco, on which he took part in the fighting around the Solomon Islands in World War II, and later, served during the Korean War. Clark served 22 years in the Navy before retiring as a chief petty officer, and, in 2012, was recognized for his heroic actions during the Battle of Okinawa. Clark, who was aboard the USS Aaron Ward, was the sole survivor of an eight-man damage control unit, after Japanese kamikazes attacked the ship. Alone and injured, Clark put out the fires aboard the Aaron Ward before the flames reached the ammunition locker, saving the ship and its crew.
What sets individuals like Clark and Hedley apart from other Americans is that they’ve lived through not one, but two major attacks on U.S. soil: Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11.
“The anger was all out here in America, where Japanese-Americans were being treated like they were the enemy,” Clark said, referencing the internment of Japanese-American citizens under Executive Order 9066. “They treated them they were like the damn enemy, they didn’t do anything to the rest of America. The Japanese in San Francisco, they took all their houses and their businesses from them and everything else.”
Clark, who as a black sailor serving during segregation and a victim of prejudice himself, sees a parallel between domestic policies in the States following the Pearl Harbor attacks, and what he describes as unjust animosity toward the Middle East, and Muslims, in particular, in the wake of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror.
“The way it wound up,” Clark said, “With how people treat the Middle East, painting everybody with the same brush, they treat everyone with the same prejudice … I don’t think it’s very good. I know there’s good people out there.”
However, for Hedley the differences are more distinct than the similarities. World War II, was a conflict between nations, militaries, and clear sides. Today’s wars are asymmetrical, the opposition unclear, with American and coalition troops fighting enemies with no nation and driven by ideologies, not governments.
“At Pearl Harbor, we knew the minute the attack took place who the enemy was,” Hedley said. “With the terrorists, when they hit the towers, nobody knew who the enemy was. It’s an entirely different type of war today than what it was when I was in. We knew who the enemy was: Germany, Italy, and Japan. I think Bush did the right thing, but nevertheless, fighting terror is like punching the air. You don’t know who they are.”
At the end of the Second World War, there was an official surrender, followed by reconciliation between the nations involved. Hedley, who survived horrors at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere in the war, later met with those he once faced in battle.
“I had the beautiful experience of meeting the man who led the attack on Pearl Harbor,” Hedley said, adding, “We had a real nice chat.”
To Hedley, the idea of today’s American military veterans breaking bread with a member of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the insurgency in Iraq, or the Islamic State, is unlikely, if not impossible.
His was a war of nations, Hedley said, today’s is a war of ideologies.