Pearl Harbor Navy Survivor Tells His Story

In honor of the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, I’m posting an excerpt from a story in my new book, They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans. My husband and I also plan to attend a local Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony.

They Did It for Honor book cover

I did this interview with Dick Girocco, a World War II Navy veteran, via skype, thanks to the help of the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor. They arranged for Dick to talk with me through one of their computers. Thanks to Mr. Girocco and every other American military veteran for their service!

This attack on an American base in the Pacific killed thousands of Americans. It is significant because it was the catalyst for the U.S. to enter World War II which had raged in Europe and Asia since the late 1930s.

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(excerpt from Dick Girocco’s story in They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans):

A cacophony of unfamiliar, horrendous noises on Ford Island caused Seaman 2nd class Richard Girocco and other seamen from his PBY squadron (‘patrol bomber’) to run outside of their aviation hangar. It was approximately 0800 hours on Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Ordinarily, the seamen would be resting on their bunks. Today, they had been ordered to prepare to move equipment from Pearl Harbor to Perth, Australia.

The sight of planes in the sky didn’t immediately alarm them. “We thought the Army Air Corps was dropping flour sacks for practice,” said Girocco.

As he and the others continued to gaze upward, they noticed with growing dismay the machine gun fire erupting from the planes. The young American seamen realized the planes were part of the Japanese Imperial forces. Their pilots were firing on Ford Island. Pearl Harbor was under attack!

Burning and damaged ships at PHa result of Jap attack, 12-7-41. L. to R. USS AZ, USS TN, USS WV

Photo Caption: Burning and damaged ships at Pearl Harbor– result of Japanese attack, 12-7-41. L. to R. USS AZ, USS TN, USS WV. National Archives.

Upon landing at the U.S. territory of Hawaii in November 1941 Dick Girocco, a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had thought he was in paradise. “There was lots of green water and sand,” he said. Note: The Republic of Hawaii became the Territory of Hawaii to the U.S. in 1898. In 1959, residents of Hawaii voted in favor of statehood, making Hawaii the 50th U.S. State.

He was assigned to a duty station aboard the USS Saratoga patrolling the Hawaiian Islands.

His first impulse on that sunny Sunday morning that his life was in danger was to run back inside the hangar. Realizing he would be exposed as a target, he chose a closer means of rescue. Several feet of pipe lay close by, part of a project the Navy had begun of transporting water from the coast to the hangars.

Dick Girocco close-up-good

Caption: Dick Girocco at Pearl Harbor 1941.

Scrambling inside a section, Girocco watched in horror as a series of bombs hit the USS Shaw. The destroyer had been sitting in the Navy yard dry dock. When the ship exploded, Girocco was sent flying, landing hard in a nearby ditch.

“I couldn’t see anything after that, but could hear the noise and feel the concussion on the ground,” he said. When Japanese bombers set off ammunition in Hangar 6, naval personnel were again in shock “It seemed all we could do was wait for instructions from anyone,” he said.

uss-arizona-burning

Photo caption: USS Arizona burning during attack on Pearl Harbor. National Archives.

Girocco later learned that prior to attacking Pearl Harbor, Japanese Imperial Navy aircraft had bombed the nearby U.S. Naval Air Station on the east coast of Oahu. As a result, 27 Catalina PBY Seaplanes – known as ‘flying boats’ — were damaged and unable to go on the attack. “This was devastating as they could have followed the attackers as a defensive maneuver,” he said.

When quiet finally descended over the area, Navy personnel quickly set to work, trying to establish order. A hangar was made into quarters and a barracks along Battle Ship Row was converted to a hospital for shrapnel wounds and other injuries.

For days the uninjured like Girocco looked for survivors in the oil-filled waters. “We did rescue flights with PBYs,” he said. “They could land on water and retrieve survivors.” Rubber rafts were used to retrieve dead bodies.

News about the unmitigated attack spread to Washington DC and other parts of the U.S., most of whom had no idea where or what Pearl Harbor was. American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, furiously declared war on the Axis powers of Japan, Italy and Germany on December 8, 1941.

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A purchase of They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans would make a great present for a history lover, military person, school or baby boomer whose parent may have served.

Please remember to thank a veteran today for his/her service, no matter the era/ branch in which they served.

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