EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. | Dec. 7, 1941, the infamous day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, is a day and event in history that students learn about and study, but Columbus Elementary's fifth-graders recently got a rare, firsthand account of the tragedy.
VFW 5694 Past Cmdr. Russell Rieke Jr. and VFW 5694 member Kate Broadhurst brought Dallas Harvey, a 94-year-old Highland, Ill., resident and survivor from the attack on Pearl Harbor, to Columbus Elementary to tell the students about his experience on that horrific day.
Harvey, a 21-year-old medic at the time, was stationed on the USS Argonne, a repair ship that was docked in Pearl Harbor that fateful Sunday morning. Harvey explained that it was just shy of 8 a.m. when he stepped out onto the deck "to get a breath of fresh air" before he began his medical duty.
"I saw a plane coming over, and I didn't think anything about it because there was a small airport in the middle of Pearl Harbor," Harvey said. "So this plane came over and it dropped something. I didn't know what it was until it hit the hangar in this small airport. The whole hangar blew apart. I thought something terrible had happened."
He said it wasn't before two more planes flew overhead and hit the hangar that he realized they were under attack. "The third plane came right over our ship, and I realized that isn't one of our planes. It had the wrong insignias on the wings," Harvey said. "So, I realized that that plane dropped a bomb, by that time I knew they were bombs. It blew apart another part of the hangar and everything exploded. I went down the passage way screaming at the top of my lungs because we didn't have any alarm system on that ship. I screamed at the top of my lungs, "We're under attack. Go to your battle stations immediately. And I ran to my battle station."
The Imperial Japanese Navy had launched a surprise attack against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Japanese attacked using 353 aircraft launched in two waves of attacks. In the attack, four U.S. Navy battleships were sunk and four other ships were damaged.
Within less than two hours, the attack killed 2,402 Americans and wounded 1,282 on land and on the ships.
Having been a part of the fire and rescue party, Harvey said he was sent over to the USS California to help, but its sailors had already abandoned the sinking ship. While in the harbor on a small tugboat on this assignment, Harvey described the boat as "a slow boat to China" because the boat moved so painstakingly slow that he noted "if I could walk on water, I could walk over to the California faster." During the assignment he said they encountered the second wave of Japanese attacks, but their small boat wasn't attacked.
He recalled bombs being dropped on all the large battleships docked at Pearl Harbor.
"I can remember the USS Arizona — a bomb went down into the magazine — which the magazine on a ship holds all the armament, the guns and the bombs and everything else — and on the Arizona when it hit down into the magazine, there was a horrible, horrible explosion on the Arizona," Harvey recalled. "It was just so terrific. The Arizona literally blew apart."
Harvey explained that he spent the rest of that day and the next few days thereafter retrieving bodies from the harbor. "I spent hours helping get these bodies, and at that time they were dead. Some of these bodies had no heads anymore or they had no arms or no legs or whatever," Harvey said. "It was about three-and-a-half days before I got in my old bed because there was so much to do and there was so few people left to do it."
Harvey also offered some insight into why the USS Arizona had the most fatalities that day. He explained that the evening before the attack that there had been a "battle of the bands" event in which the USS Arizona had been a part as well as Harvey's ship. He explained that the USS Pennsylvania won the contest and their reward was the weekend off.
"The Arizona came in second which meant they got the chance to sleep in the next morning rather than go out and play the national anthem as the flag went up," Harvey said. "The USS Arizona, their band was literally wiped out in the bombing of the Arizona."
"So because they got to sleep in that's why so many people perished on the Arizona versus a lot of the other ships," Broadhurst added. "Because they weren't out on the top of the ship and able to go to their battle stations like a lot of the others, they literally were in their beds still sleeping rather than being out on the deck at 8 o'clock in the morning."
The inquisitive fifth-graders asked Harvey a variety of questions including whether the sound of the bombs hurt his hearing, if he had heard the president's speech that day, and how he reacted to the 9/11 attacks?
But one question struck a chord with Harvey as he fought back emotion to answer, "How does it feel to be a survivor?" "I guess I'm extremely lucky. Most people tell me I'm a hero, and I don't think I am," Harvey said holding back tears. "I look back and realize I was just one of the lucky ones that got saved."
When a student asked how Harvey felt about being an honored man, as well as coming to the school to talk to kids, Harvey again choked back tears.
"I enjoy it, but I don't think I'm a hero. We've got one man that lives near where I do, Bill Starkweather," Harvey said quite emotionally. "I look at him as a hero, and he looks on me as a hero. I guess we counterbalance each other."
Broadhurst elaborated explaining that Starkweather was wounded in action during WWII, had received a Purple Heart, and currently resides in the nursing home where Harvey also lives.
The presentation ended as the students came up individually and thanked Harvey for his service to our country.
Columbus Elementary fifth-grade teacher Matt Maddox, who had arranged for Harvey's visit, felt Harvey's talk with the students was invaluable.
"It is important for students to understand, realize, and appreciate the sacrifices of our veterans. World War II and Pearl Harbor veterans will soon be history and it is up to our generation to teach others about all that they've done for our country," Maddox said, "They defeated Japanese imperialism, Nazi fascism, and built a modern economy upon returning from war."