'It was chaos and confusion': WWII veteran Dixie Harris recalls Pearl Harbor attack

benw@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 6, 2013 

Seventy-two years after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a Columbus survivor can still recall the smell of gunpowder and burning flesh.

Dixie Harris, a native of Talbot County, was a 19-year-old Navy seaman first class on his way to breakfast when the Japanese launched their first wave of two attacks against the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii.

"It was terrible," Harris said during an interview at his home. "It was chaos and confusion."

In less than two hours, the attack ended with 2,403 Americans dead, including 68 civilians, and 1,178 wounded. The attack was a key event that thrust the United States into World War II. Veterans groups and other organizations will mark the anniversary today with a series of speeches, dances and re-enactments of that "Day of Infamy."

Harris, 91, said he stepped out of his barracks shortly before 8 a.m. that Sunday when he gazed at a Japanese fighter plane with the "Rising Sun" insignia visible on the fuselage. Most sailors were still asleep in the barracks, taking advantage of the day to sleep late. "I started down to the command from the submarine barracks about a half block away near the waterfront," Harris said. "Here comes this plane right toward me. I said, well, he is going to shoot me for sure. I had no place to go. I was out in the open. I stood still and shook in my boots."

Instead of firing on Harris, the pilot banked the aircraft and flew close enough that Harris could see the open canopy.

"He just looked over the side and grinned at me," Harris said of the pilot. "He had a gold tooth in his mouth."

After flying past Harris without taking a shot, the aircraft pulled back over the harbor where it took a direct hit and exploded, he said.

"The Lord saved my life that day and several other times during the war," Harris said.

In a matter of minutes, the sky over Pearl Harbor was like someone busted a hornets' nest with swarming aircraft. The first wave of attackers included 181 planes with bombers and fighters. Thirty minutes after the first attack, a second wave of 170 planes appeared over the harbor.

Black smoke and flames filled the harbor as sailors jumped into the dangerous water to escape the damaged ships. Harris said many sailors were burned, others drowned and some were able to make it to nearby Ford Island.

"With the harbor on fire, people that could do it dove down underneath and swam as far as they could," Harris said. "They got a sniff of air and went on, but a lot of them burned to death there in the water."

Harris said band members from the USS West Virginia were about to play music to post the flag when a plane strafed the band members.

"They were killed to start with," he said. "They caught us by complete surprise."

The Japanese planned a third wave of attacks with 79 planes but they were held back, Harris said. The attack would have knocked out the fuel supply and ammunition storage.

"If they had done that, we would not have had anything between Pearl Harbor and San Francisco," he said.

When the attack ended just before 10 a.m., 21 of the 90 ships anchored at Pearl Harbor were sunk or damaged. The largest death toll was on the USS Arizona, which was struck by an armor-piercing bomb, igniting an explosion that killed 1,177 crewmen.

Today, the Arizona Memorial marks the resting place for 1,102 sailors and Marines on the ship.

A ceremony will start at 7:45 a.m. today at the memorial to remember the attack. Max Cleland, a former U.S. senator from Georgia and secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, is the keynote speaker.

In addition to the damaged ships, 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed and 159 were damaged. Many aircraft never had a chance to take off.

Losses for the Japanese were light with 29 planes failing to return to their carriers. Four midget submarines and a big submarine were sunk near the harbor.

Harris said the day at the harbor changed many sailors and Marines.

"We went into Pearl Harbor as boys and I tell everybody they came out as men that afternoon," Harris said. "We were so angry. The anger of being attacked like that is what kept us going during World War II."

Brian Zeringue, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Veterans Service, said the state had 17 casualties at Pearl Harbor.

The nation is losing veterans of World War II and survivors of Pearl Harbor daily. In 2003, there were at least 87 Georgia members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Zeringue said.

As a member of the association, Harris said there were 2,000 survivors of Pearl Harbor during the last count he received.

"We are going out of existence like veterans in the United States," he said.

Harris, a retired chief petty officer, said he's proud of the 22 years he served in the Navy. He flies an American flag at his home and loves to talk about Pearl Harbor to children at schools.

"Americans easily forget," he said. "We are the shortsighted nation."

He once asked a class if anyone knew where Pearl Harbor is located. "Nobody held up a hand," he said. "One girl held up her hand and said, 'I don't need to know who she is.'"

As another anniversary of Pear Harbor is recognized, Harris said Americans always should keep in mind what can happen.

"We say, 'Remember Pearl Harbor,'" he said. "Keep America alert.

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