“Still too hot,” Chester sighed, setting his cup of joe aside. He took out three trays of biscuits from the oven and placed on the tiered racks for cooling, and then quickly shoved more trays of biscuits in. Wiping his brow, he worked more dough to keep things going in the kitchen galley of his cruiser, the USS San Francisco. Roll, cut, place on trays. Roll, cut, place on trays. Chester and the other sailor cooks worked in tandem to feed the nearly 900 sailors and officers aboard their ship.
On an ordinary Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Chester’s own eating shift to dig into the biscuits and gravy he’d helped prepare would start in a few minutes. He was looking forward to his assigned liberty time later that afternoon to explore Pearl Harbor beyond the Naval parameters. Get a glimpse of the tropical island, still mild with beauty even in December.
The San Francisco, a heavy cruiser, had come into the Naval base for cleaning of her heavily fouled bottom. Her engineering plant was largely broken down for overhaul.
“Here they come.” Chester eyed his shipmates shuffling in line to grab their breakfast trays. Some rubbing their eyes, others already cracking jokes, pushing, and jabbing elbows to claim their spots in line. He’d come to love the camaraderie with his buddies as they all worked together as a team on the cruiser.
Suddenly, without warning, the trays filled with hot biscuits on the racks vibrated, shifted, and some crashed to the floor when the whole ship jolted. Shocks! Blows! More jolts!
Chester panicked as did all his sailor comrades with the surprise explosions from the Japanese planes as they brutally dropped their bombs on the clustered Navy warships at the American base.
The GQ alarm blared, and faster than greased lightning, Chester joined his shipmates to secure his ship for watertightness and began looking for opportunities to fight back. Some of his buddies crossed over to another ship, the USS New Orleans, to help man anti-aircraft batteries on that ship. Others began grabbing available rifles and machine guns to fight back in whatever way they could.
After only one hour and fifteen minutes, the tragic disaster damaged or destroyed twenty-one American ships and more than 300 aircraft. The wounded added up to 1,100, and 2,403 men, women, and children died at the hands of the ruthless Japanese. The entire harbor was in shambles for quite some time with debris smoldering and hearts of citizens and sailors grieving.
Although the San Francisco sustained no direct hits, and work resumed to make her combat-ready so she could return to the Pacific a week later, her sailors, including my Uncle Chester, sustained emotional scars which primed and steeled them for entry into WWII.
After the war, my uncle and his new bride, Beverly, joined the Pearl Harbor Survivor Association and attended the meetings/dinners for many years. The horrors of Pearl Harbor stuck with my Uncle Chet the rest of his life. After his death in 1997, several Pearl Harbor survivors presented me with the flag that flies on my front porch every fourth of July. When I hang this beloved flag, I think about how my uncle was preparing breakfast for his shipmates, not suspecting any kind of a catastrophe. He was a devoted sailor, always serving others, and especially his country.
History matters. We can learn a lot from our past and gain an appreciation of our fellow Americans who lived through not only Pearl Harbor, but all of WWII. My heart swells with indebtedness for the Greatest Generation who sacrificed so much for us, yet asked for so little in return.
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