Some ‘Behind the Scenes’ Info:
My interview with Dick Girocco was unique among my 260 talks with veterans from World War II.
Ordinarily, I sat in front of a veteran while he/she told their stories about military service. I liked to be close to watch their faces as they talked about family, boot camp, and duties of service.
Plus, it helped to be in-person to aid with their auditory challenges. Many of the men, due to working around big guns and planes in the war, experienced hearing loss.
But sitting in front of Dick Girocco was impossible.
The reason was due to geography. He lived in Honolulu and I lived on the mainland (I wished it could have been possible!).
As hard as it is to believe, after experiencing the devastation of the Japanese attack, Girocco still chose to retire in Hawaii.
But all was not lost for our interview.
With the help of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum in Honolulu, Dick was seated at a computer at the museum where a volunteer hooked him up to Skype, a free online communication service. I was familiar with using Skype, due to a daughter who lived overseas.
The transmission went well for our hour-long talk. Thanks again to the staff of the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum for making this interview possible!
Dick’s story is part of my book, They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans.
Sadly, Dick passed away on March 25, 2020. He was 98 years old.
I don’t know if he was the last of the Pearl Harbor survivors, but he would surely have been near the end.
I’m thankful to have heard his story and to be able to share it with you.
Here is Dick’s story.
At 0800 hours on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a cacophony of unfamiliar noises on Ford Island assaulted the ears of Seaman 2nd class Richard Girocco. He ran outside of the hangar where he had been working to discover the cause for the commotion.
Ordinarily, Girocco and the other seamen from his PBY squadron (‘patrol bomber’) would have been resting on their bunks during their weekend leave.
But on that day – December 7, 1941 — they had been ordered to arrive early for work. Their duties included loading equipment to be transported from Pearl Harbor to Perth, Australia.
At first the sight of planes overhead made Girocco think the Army Air Corps was dropping flour sacks for target practice.
But as he and the others gazed upward, they noticed machine gun fire erupting from the planes. At that point the young seamen thought the American flight crews were carrying their maneuvers too far.
Then, with growing horror, Girocco and the other sailors realized the bullets were not part of a drill.
The planes had big red balls painted on the sides. They dropped low over Ford Island, their aviators firing, spewing their vitriolic bombs with precision at the men, ships, and everything below. They belonged to the Japanese Imperial forces.
Pearl Harbor was under attack!
Upon landing at the U.S. territory of Hawaii In November 1941, Dick Girocco thought he was in paradise. “There was lots of green water and sand,” he said.
Note: The Republic of Hawaii had become a territory of the U.S. in 1898. It would not become that nation’s 50th state until 1959.
Prior to enlisting in the Navy, Girocco, a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had worked at a forestry camp in Wisconsin for the Civilian Conservation Corps. “I earned $30 a month,” he said. He sent home $22 for his family.
After completing basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago, Girocco attended aviation machinist school at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Seattle.
Upon arriving in Hawaii, he was assigned to the USS Saratoga patrolling the islands.
Life had been easy with daily chores and camaraderie among the sailors.
That all changed as the Japanese planes destroyed ships, planes and men in their paths.
Girocco’s first impulse upon realizing his life was in danger was to run back inside the hangar. But he was afraid of attracting attention and chose a closer means of safety.
The Navy had begun a project of transporting water from the coast to the hangars. Several feet of pipe lay close by.
Diving 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 flew through the air, landing in a nearby ditch. He couldn’t see, but he could still hear the noise and feel the concussion of successive explosions.
As Japanese bombers set off ammunition in hangars, Girocco and other naval personnel were frozen in shock “All we could do was wait for instructions from anyone,” he said.
Girocco later learned that prior to attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial Navy aircraft had bombed the nearby U.S. Naval Air Station on the east coast of Oahu. They immobilized 27 Catalina PBY seaplanes – ‘flying boats’ — which was devastating as the planes could have provided defensive maneuvers.
When the Japanese planes finally flew off, Navy personnel quickly set to work, trying to establish order. A hangar was made into quarters. A barracks along Battle Ship Row was converted to a hospital.
For days Girocco and other uninjured sailors looked for survivors in the oil-filled waters. “We did rescue flights with PBYs,” he said. “The planes could land on water to 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. While most Americans had no idea where or what Pearl Harbor was, all were incensed at the deaths of more than 2,400 Americans.
On December 8, 1941, during a moving speech to Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged its members to declare war on the Axis powers of Japan, Italy and Germany, which they did.
Richard Girocco remained in the U.S Navy during the war. After serving more than 20 years, he retired as a Petty Officer First Class. He volunteered at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum where he told visitors about his love for his country. “It was a good experience being in the Navy,” he said. “The attack was rough, but I was glad to serve my country.”
In 1964, Ford Island was designated a National Historic Landmark. As of 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the island as one of the United States’ most-endangered historic sites.
Tour of Pearl Harbor
In 2019, my husband John (Air Force retiree) and I vacationed in Oahu. We chose that island specifically because of its military importance.
We found this interesting window at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. The panes missing were shot out during the invasion. The military chose to not replace them as permanent stark reminders of the devastation on that day.
2. At the time we arrived at Ford Island, the Arizona exhibit was under reconstruction. A tour boat operator had run into it, making it off-limits during repairs.
That was most disappointing. But, as there was nothing to do about it, we took photos from our tour boat and accepted that we would have to return someday to see the bubbles of oil appear on the surface from the sunken ship. I look forward to that time.
3. One thing struck me about the area around Pearl Harbor – it was not nearly as large as I had expected. With battleships anchored there, I had thought they would have to be some distance away from each other to avoid collision. But from the location of these markers, it appears that was not the case.
The point is, their proximity to each other made it even easier for the enemy to hit a target.
In this photo we see the locations of the USS West Virginia and Tennessee. Re-read earlier posts to refresh your memory about the destruction caused that day.
Check out events in your area commemorating the 80th anniversary of this attack at Pearl Harbor.
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is planning events around this anniv as well. Check out their informative website.
How did Hawaiians react to the attack to their homeland?
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize today at the 80th anniversary of the org known as Civil Air Patrol. As invasion by the enemy was considered a possibility, an effort was made to protect the American homeland. Young people, especially, were instructed about different types of planes to watch out for and given various duties to do after school in this respect.
Our family owes a lot to Civil Air Patrol. Our son joined when he was 12 years old. He stayed in until age 18. They taught him how to march, salute, take care of his body to keep it fit, and to learn much about the military. He did well and was eventually squadron commander of 30+ cadets. The adult leaders also encouraged him to think of applying to the US Air Force Academy. He did so and was accepted. He graduated and today, he is an officer in the Air Force, all due to some dedicated people who we can’t thank enough! Thanks to Sarah Sundin for pointing out this poster at her website.
As always, thanks to our veterans for their service. We would not be free without you.