INTERVIEW WITH A PEARL HARBOR SURVIVOR
While onboard the Golden Princess directed to Hawaii, I am approached by an old man with little wise eyes that introduces himself as one of the few survivors of Pearl Harbor still alive. He is eager to tell me his story so I decide to set up a tripod and a video camera and get ready to listen. We settle in a corner of the wheelhouse bar, the only bar on the ship that, in my opinion, reminds you that you are actually on a ship in the middle of the ocean...the room is full of antique sailing maps, compasses and even an old rudder wheel. Howard, that's his name, is wearing a flower shirt in perfect Hawaiian style, a medal and a hat full of badges and pins.
Good afternoon Howard, if you would like to introduce yourself...
My name is Howard Bender, I come from California and I am 89 years old. I joined the Navy in 1940 and was called to active duty in February 1941; I took my basic training at the Navy station in San Diego, California and later was assigned to the Pacific fleet, to the USS Maryland, which at that time was stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii.
How was your life prior to joining the Navy?
I was a kid during the Depression, we didn't have anything, if we needed it we made it: I had a good education along with learning chopping and carpentry, I learned to do my own repair, my own plumbing. I was gifted to have learned all that knowledge from my family. When you don't know what you could have or what you are supposed to have you don't miss it.
I was also an average surfer, body surfer because we didn't have surf, so I was so happy when I was sent to Hawaii, it was like a dream there, I could use long-boards, and you have to think that we were all 17/18-year-old kids hanging on the beaches. At the time when I arrived, there was the Royal Hawaiian hotel and maybe another small unit and the rest was all sand...a long beautiful and pristine beach.
How did you decide to join the Navy?
I was trained as a kid by my father who was a veteran of WW1 and he made me and my brother orient towards the fact that within a few years we would have to go to war. In those years Hilter was moving towards complete control of Germany and Mussolini was starting to develop an army, but it was only when the tripartite pact was signed by Japan, Germany, and Italy that we knew we had to go in and automatically volunteered.
How was life in Hawaii before the attack?
I spend 8 months in Honolulu before the bombing and during that time we were on training...when you are at sea the training is very different from a land-based one, living on a ship is like learning a lifestyle. On top of the army training, you have to learn little tricks from old seamen. As you progress you take examinations and then you are promoted to a higher grade with an increase in pay.
When I first started out my whole equipment was a seabag full of uniforms, a hammock to sleep in and 21$ a month. We were more than 8.000 militaries on the island and when we weren't at sea training we were at sea playing on the boards. It was a good life.
What are your memories of that 7th of December?
On December the 7th of 1941I was onboard the USS Maryland writing a letter to my parents, I was 18 years of age and all of a sudden I heard a bomb go off and I thought it was very weird for an exercise, I went to the side of the ship where my office was and opened the porthole and saw seamen laying around, fires burning and then I felt a sudden move of my vessel and we were hit by a 2 thousand pound-15 inch shell bomb that went through our armor deck and we began to take water in; at the same time we had horizontal bombers and dive bombers and two torpedo bombers hit the USS Oklahoma that began to bend towards us. I run to my battle station to the top and another torpedo hit the USS Oklahoma that really started to roll over. We could not fire to the harbor because the USS Oklahoma still had part of her structure in line of fire so we had to wait until she went completely over; at that time the USS Arizona blew up and a massive explosion threw us around in our little compartments on the ship, then the USS Oklahoma completely rolled over onto our side and the planes still kept dropping the torpedos. Then the USS West Virginia was hit and the USS California as well that was full of oil and gasoline, so lots of fumes started to come out, but luckily the Japanese didn't hit the deposit on land where we had all the rest of our oil and gasoline.
You are one of the few survivors, do you know any other?
On the USS Oklahoma, 452 lives were taken, but I had the privilege to save one of them: this man had been entombed for three and a half days into the water up to his neck in total darkness in a hole inside the USS Oklahoma. He died old in his house and is now buried at Pearl Harbor memorial park.
There was also one man in the coastguard named Daniel Seaman Raw, the only man to ever get the congressional medal of honor, he saved the lives of 40 marines by extracting them from the ships where they were trapped while the Japanese put 21 bullets on him but he didn't die.
How did Japan manage to take you by surprise?
Our general had a feeling that the saboteurs, known today as terrorists, were going to attack us so he ordered to put all the vessels in line ready to fight but this has been a bit mistake because he didn't realize that the danger would come from the air, not from the water. The planes caught us by complete surprise and the Japanese operation worked perfectly.
So my job now, and the one of the other survivors is to remind America to keep alert.
How was the clime during WW2?
WW2 was a war without a mercy; Japan attacked the base without knowing who were the people they were going to kill, Yamamoto ordered to destroy only the fleet even though he could have taken down the whole island probably and luckily he didn't do so, otherwise we could not have recovered the way we did.
The same thing happened in Germany when we went over to Dresden, we took a thousand planes and did what we call carpet bombing. Over 30 thousand women and kids were killed and the whole city destroyed. That's what happens during war.
Our policy inthePacificwas never surrender, it was a win-win situation, we either take them or either die doing it and the first marines division was trained the same way.
What did you do after the attack?
They sent me to Boston, Massachusetts, where I worked with 150 women in an IT office preparing the Normandy invasion...that's where I saw the first IB computer, a huge machine that would pull out information every time you'd insert a name. It was a nice transition from Hawaii to being a civil citizen again.
How do you feel now dredging up the past?
It is hard to describe an incident like Pearl because you have to really live it and telling you this brings back a lot of memories. When people, both Americans and foreigners, ask me about my experience I tell them that "this is the price you pay for freedom".
ThesoulofAmerican people is liberty. Once you lose it you'll never get it back. It's up to us to protect our liberty and respect the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. I can't stop telling people to keep freedom alive.
And what do you do now?
I belong to the Freedom Committee together with 100 veterans of all wars, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf, Iran and now the younger ones from Afghanistan and Iraq. What we do is we go to schools and tell the kids exactly what happened because the educational system does not describe or give any idea about how we achieved our freedom, who is responsible for liberty and why we have what we have today. Liberty that other countries would love to have but they don't know how to get it and then when they do get it they don't know how to handle it. I tell these young adults it's their time now and they have to take their own responsibilities and protect the liberty of our country because if we lose it we'll never get it back. We should keep history alive and learn from it to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Do you find fulfilling going to schools and meeting young people?
Oh, yes. The kids get back on us with good remarks and they are very illuminating. I have to give something back, I have had a great life, married for 67 years to the same woman, great family relations, I have everything that I have ever wanted.
It's my duty to inform the kids so that they'll be great citizens one day.
What do you think about the present situation?
Kids have it easier for many reasons, as technology and democracy, but I wouldn't want to live in their time, you cannot trust anyone, your next door neighbor could live there for 12 years and then all of a sudden come out and bomb your house. In my time I knew who my enemy was, there was no doubt about that, terrorism is a whole different game.
And what about Iraq?
If I go into my feeling about what we should have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, I say we shouldn't have wasted our young generations which are our greatest resources, but people nowadays don't think the way we old people think.
If you had the chance to talk to your younger self what would you say?
Serve your country! Graduates come up to me and ask me how it is out there and I tell them that you can document yourself but you won't know how it really is until you get out there and experience it on your skin.
Listen to your parents because they always give you good advice and if the family relations are good it is more likely that the kids are going to be good citizens. People nowadays want everything now but they don't understand that to achieve something you have to work your way through unless you are born with a silver spoon, you gotta work at it.
Are you looking forward to visit Pearl Harbor memorial?
Yes, we try to go there every year. When I visit the memorial people from all over the world have questions about the happenings and I like to tell them that they are actually standing on the price of freedom.
© GIULIA CANDUSSI. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.