Survivor from Pearl Harbor recounts the devastating day

Veterans Voices

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (WDVM) — This coming December, the United States will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that catapulted America into a two-front global war with Japan and its axis ally Nazi Germany.

Four Japanese aircraft carriers turned into the wind as the sun was coming up 120 miles northwest of the Hawaiian island of Oahu and launched 103 high-level bombers, 131 dive bombers 40 torpedo planes, and 79 fighters in two waves, one hour apart.

The attack began at 7:55 local time on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941.

The following day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told a joint session of Congress and Americans listening on radio that “Date would live in Infamy.” FDR scribbled some last-minute changes to his speech before addressing Congress and the American people on the radio.

The attack was devastating; catching a ship’s band playing as the American flag was raised on the fantail of one vessel in the harbor.

A Japanese photo shows a bomber pulling off Battleship Row after dropping the first bomb of the attack that sank five U.S. battleships and heavily damaged eight others.

Corporal Tom Gilliam, a medic in the 7th Air Force stationed at Hickham Field, less than a mile north of where the U.S. Pacific Fleet was moored at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, had just gotten up at his barracks when he heard a plane coming.

“It flew 50-feet over my head,” said Gilliam as he sat in his easy chair in Hagerstown, “But the pilot didn’t look at me when he flew by,” said Gilliam. The enemy aircraft apparently was focused on Ford Island.

Gilliam says he was too far away to hear the explosions as bombs blew up USS Arizona, sending more than one thousand sailors to a watery grave.

Warships that weren’t hit went to “Battle Stations” as more than 200 Japanese Zeros, high-level bombers and torpedo bombers attacked Battleship Row like a bunch of hornets.

Gunners shot down more than two dozen Japanese aircraft, killing more than sixty airmen in the Imperial Japanese Navy.

A Japanese Zero like this one that was hit and set on fire crashed in the front yard of a civilian’s house in Honolulu.

Gilliam who celebrated his 100th birthday last December says Hickham Field where his clinic was located got hit hard. “They shot up planes parked wingtip to wingtip on the ramp, along with some seaplanes,” said Gilliam.

A flight of B-17s coming in from the U.S. mainland arrives at the time of the Japanese attack. In fact, a radar operator on the northern end of Oahu thought the big blip on his oscilloscope was the B-17s, not Japanese warplanes. The Flying Fortress low on fuel landed at Hickam Field in the middle of the melee and was destroyed along with more than 200 other aircraft.

Only one member of the attacking force is known to have survived the surprise attack. He got lost trying to find Pearl Harbor and grounded his mini-submarine on the opposite end of Oahu near Bellows Beach and became Prisoner of War No. 1. The naval ensign’s crewmate drowned in the surf when they tried to swim ashore.

More than 23-hundred American service personnel and more than 60 civilians were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Half of them were buried in temporary graves on the beach in Honolulu.

After the war, the remains were buried in a dormant volcano on Oahu that became known as the “Punchbowl,” the burial ground for American dead in the Pacific, or returned home in the states for burial.

Tom Gilliam came back to Hagerstown after the war and met his future wife when he went shopping for civilians clothes at a department store in town. Helen Lushbaugh was 14 when she heard the word of the attack on the radio after she and her parents returned home from church on Sunday morning, December 17th. She and Tom have been married for 73 years.

As the last man standing in the “Last Man Standing Club” at his local VFW, Tom was presented a 20-year-old bottle of Scotch which they keep in a cabinet above their wedding photo.

When World War veterans, some of whom have appeared on “Veterans Voices” gather in December to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Tom Gilliam will be sitting in his easy chair. He and a handful of Pearl Harbor survivors are not physically able to make that long flight to Hawaii, but they will never forget what happened on that “Date that will live in Infamy.”

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