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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003

79 civilians' heroic acts focus of Dec. 7 tributes

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Robert Lee remembers hosing down furious, oil-covered sailors determined to rejoin the fight and turn back the attackers.

Ed Chun, who was 18 on Dec. 7, 1941, holds an anti-aircraft shell casing shot during the Pearl Harbor attack.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Henry T.H. Chang remembers their bodies floating in the harbor.

And Edward Chun remembers the burned men he pulled to safety. Their screams are seared into his memory.

Every year on this terrible anniversary, they are reminded of the attack on Pearl Harbor just as an aching joint precedes a storm. But every year, very few people remember what these men did 62 years ago.

For a time this afternoon, amid the solemn graves of veterans at Punchbowl Crater, that will change. The Navy will pay special tribute to 30 civilian survivors of the attack and to 49 civilians who died that Sunday morning. The names of each casualty will be read aloud, and a red or white rose placed beside memorial wreaths.

"When you think of Pearl Harbor survivors, you think of military survivors," said Lt. j.g. Erin Bailey, a spokeswoman for Navy Region, Hawai'i, host of the 2 p.m. ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

"They were the same people witnessing the attack and being fired upon by Japanese Zeroes," she said. "They were right alongside the sailors. They were in the same situation."

Lee is 82 now, a retired Pam American Airways ground service supervisor from Maunawili. But on Dec. 7, 1941, he lived with his parents on a hill just above the 'Aiea boat landing at the edge of Pearl Harbor. His father supervised the Navy pump house nearby.

Shortly after the 7:55 a.m. attack began, explosions woke the young Lee. "I actually thought it was doors slamming in the wind," he said. "But our house overlooked battleship row. It looked straight down the harbor channel. The ships were under attack."

Lee was staring at the battleship USS Arizona when its hull suddenly glowed bright red.

"Have you ever seen a blacksmith working metal or a welder doing some work? Well, the whole ship turned that red color from the inside, and then the whole ship exploded," Lee recalled.

Balls of flame, unbelievably large and hot, shot out of the ship.

"Anyone inside was cremated," he said. "Instantly."

After taking family members to the relative safety of an 'Aiea cave where his father grew mushrooms, Lee joined others on the boat landing.

"By then, they were bringing in sailors from the bay, and a lot of them were covered with oil," he said. "We went and turned on the hoses down there at the water station. My mother had some cake soap and we washed quite a few of them down."

That landing, which is now the site of the boathouse for the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, became a grim reminder of the attack as bodies were recovered from damaged ships.

"The landing became a morgue," Lee said. "At the end of the pier they set up a sawmill and made coffins for them to go into."

Chang was in Palama when the attack began, playing basketball with friends. An apprentice electrician at the Pearl Harbor shipyard, he and other workers were called into work about 9 a.m.

None of them knew what had happened. As they waited outside the base gate, watching black smoke rising into the sky, they thought Navy ships were steaming out of port.

Reality struck when Chang arrived to work at the repair shop.

"We got to our shop, and we saw all the ships sunk and all the smaller boats picking up dead bodies," Chang said. "The big ships, the Arizona ... the Utah ... everything ... they were all sunk. You just cried. Tears came out of your eyes. You just couldn't believe it."

Chang, now 82, said the only thing to do was get to work. They had to rebuild the fleet, and that was the first of many 12-hour shifts.

"Work, work, work, you just worked," said Chang, who retired from the shipyard after 25 years and then worked another 15 years for Hawaiian Telephone.

Nobody complained, he said.

"We just wanted to get our jobs done. Nobody played around or laughed. We just couldn't believe it."

When the bombs began to fall, Chun was standing on the end of the 1010 Dock waiting to start his shift in the shipyard. An 18-year-old pipefitter only a few months out of high school, he wasn't sure what was going on.

It didn't take long to figure out, however, as Japanese dive bombers sent torpedoes into the battleships USS Oklahoma and USS West Virginia.

Men were blown off the upper decks and into the water.

The blast at the Arizona created a wall of fire on the harbor surface, trapping sailors who were trying to swim to safety on Ford Island.

Small launches from the 'Aiea boat landing raced across the harbor to rescue the men and bring them to the 1010 Dock. But there was no way for them to climb up.

Chun got on his belly and reached over the dock to pull them up. The first bunch were OK, he said. Scared, covered with oil, but OK.

"But after the water caught on fire, guys were getting burned," Chun said. "They got burned on their face and their hands."

Chun reached down again as they arrived. "Some of them you would reach down and pull them up, and their skin would come off like a latex glove," he said. "They would scream. I can still hear it today. Oh my."

Chun and three other men worked for 45 minutes knowing they had no choice.

"It was horrible," he said.

Afterward, he and some of his friends from the shipyard went from emergency to emergency. They put out fires, commandeered a tugboat to pull away a sinking ship that sank anyway, and cleared debris.

By the end of the day, he was helping to rescue sailors trapped inside damaged or sunken ships. Nearly 400 sailors were trapped in the battleship Oklahoma. Chun and others carved open the steel hull with chipping guns in a desperate effort to free them.

"You did whatever you could to rescue people," he said. "Some of them were in there for three days. They were living on little pockets of air."

Only 32 came out alive.

Lee, Chang and Chun all plan to be at the Navy ceremony today at Punchbowl.

Lee will bring two of his grandchildren. He wants them to learn that "freedom isn't free."

Chang said he doesn't talk all that much about what happened that day.

"I know all about it," he said.

Today will be his first Dec. 7 anniversary ceremony.

Chun said today's tribute is long overdue, but doesn't want credit for anything he did.

"I really don't care," he said. "But they should also remember, some of my friends were firefighters who were killed. Some of the people at the shipyard, they died, too."

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8012.