A Soldier’s Account From Pearl Harbor

Sixty-eight years ago today, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, killing 2,335 American soldiers and sailors, sinking battleships, cruisers and destroyers and sparking the beginning of World War II.

In history books, the attack on Pearl Harbor is referred to as one of the deadliest attacks on America. The tragedy has been recorded in the movies, and the story has been told countless times by soldiers and sailors who experienced it first-hand.

Throughout my years as a journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to interview soldiers spanning from World War II to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the most profound was the day I drove to the little town of Wanda, population 103, to meet Herb Brand.

At the time, I was the editor of the Wabasso Standard. It was nearing the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Herb was somewhat of a legend in his hometown for the role he had in the war.

After spending an afternoon with him, I understood why.

That day, I received a history lesson greater than anything a teacher had ever taught me in school. I was face to face with a man who not only was at Pearl Harbor during the attack, he was hit by shrapnel, fired on Japanese fighter planes and most importantly, lived to tell about it all.

Like many soldiers I’ve interviewed, Herb’s story began on the Minnesota prairie … a farm boy in search of adventure.

Attracted by the slogan, “Join the Navy and see the world,” Herb, 25, and his brother, Nick, 26, signed up to serve Uncle Sam in early 1940. By the end of that year, both had been assigned to the USS California, a battleship that would dock at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 5, 1941.

All of the soldiers were required to stay on board and get the ship “spic and span” for inspection. The material inspection was completed on Saturday, with a final inspection on Sunday, Dec. 7, before soldiers would be allowed off the battleship.

Herb, who was 85 years old when I interviewed him in 2001, recalled the events of that morning as though he had lived them just hours before. Following are excerpts from the story I had written from that interview:

Herb was waiting in line at the showers prior to Mass when he heard an explosion, followed by a second. Then, over the ship’s speakers, the command was given for sailors to report to their battle stations.

“When we got to the battle stations, I was on the forward part of the ship and had to run to the back of the ship to my station,” Herb said. “A torpedo run right along the side of the ship where I was running, and when it hit the ship there was a big explosion. The torpedo hit at an angle and blew the ship wide open.”

“The next thing I know, someone drug me into a turret (where 16-inch guns are located),” he said. “I thought sure we was going to capsize, but the Lord willing, she didn’t. The ship went to a 45-degree angle, which is all we cared to see.”

After its hard hit, the USS California quickly began taking on water, but soldiers were not allowed to leave.

“We sat there and waited and the ship kept lifting,” Herb said as he dabbed a handkerchief to his eye. “I thought, ‘My God, are we going to drown like rats?’”

Seconds seemed like minutes and minutes seemed like hours, but eventually the command was given for soldiers to report to the five-inch battery, where shells and powder were used as ammunition.

Just as they settled in, the Japanese fighter planes had regrouped and were headed toward them with rifle fire.

“We scared the hell out of them if we didn’t get them,” Herb said.

During the second round of battle, the USS California had been struck by two torpedoes, one aerial bomb and strafing from the Japanese-manned machine guns. Sinking was imminent.

At the command of the captain to abandon ship, Herb scaled the deck to the high side of the ship, dived off and swam toward shore. He had nearly made it when he was stopped by a boat load of Marines who, at gunpoint, had ordered him to return to his ship.

Herb did as he was told, and when he was back aboard the USS California, he helped fellow soldiers drop the anchor and begin the horrifying task of collecting the dead to bring ashore.

“On the second deck, all those people were sleeping when the Japs hit. Those poor sailors never knew what hit them,” he said. “We went down to the second deck and the water was about up to our neck. We picked up the sailors and got them up on deck and to the morgue.”

As he recounted the story, Herb’s voice trailed off at this point. There are some things too difficult to talk about, and some things that people just don’t need to hear.

A week after the attack, Herb finally received word that his brother Nick was recuperating in a hospital on the island. Nick had been badly burned when the bomb exploded on the ship. As for Herb, he pointed out the scars where a bullet had entered and exited his left arm, just below the elbow.

Herb never reported the injury to the Navy, and therefore never received the Purple Heart for his bravery at Pearl Harbor.

After the attack, Herb’s parents had waited for weeks on word about their two sons. Then, in late December, a telegram arrived from the Navy Department in Washington, D.C., informing them that both of their sons had been killed in action.

“Little did we know that happened,” said Herb.

On New Year’s Day 1942, the Navy sent the Brands a second telegram … this time saying that both Herb and Nick were alive. Herb said his parents couldn’t believe the Navy would make such a mistake, and chose to ignore the second telegram.

Eventually the brothers were able to get letters to their parents, convincing them that indeed they were alive.

“Pa and Ma couldn’t believe it. They had a funeral Mass for us and had us in the grave, but no body. That was a hard one to take,” said Herb, once again dabbing the handkerchief to his eye.

The brothers returned home for a 30-day stay in May 1943, and then headed back to the sea, where they remained until the end of the war in 1945.

After their return to the United States, Herb spent another 20 years in the Navy before retiring with full military honors. Upon retirement, he and his wife, along with their nine children, returned to his Wanda roots.

Herb was a widower when I interviewed him that early December day back in 2001. Legally blind and still living in his own home, he proudly showed me the honors … from patches to medals and bars he earned while serving his country … encased in a display box.

He said he joined the Navy to see the world and, in the end, he’d traveled around the world on ships more than half a dozen times.

Herb remained in Wanda until his death at the age of 91. He died on Nov. 11, 2007 … Veteran’s Day. It seems kind of fitting for a man who dedicated so much of his life to the military.