I remember Sunday, 7 December 1941, as if it was yesterday. I had just turned sixteen and was living with the Reverend Hawley and his family at the Vancouver Barracks in Vancouver, Washington, just east of Portland, Oregon. Rev. Hawley had been the pastor at the Malta Community Church in my hometown of Malta, Montana, and was called up to serve as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army in Vancouver. When I dropped out of high school, Rev. Hawley got me a job at the Vancouver Barracks “PX” (Post Exchange) while I trained to become a welder at the newly-opened Kaiser Vancouver Shipyards.
On this particular Sunday morning, my buddies and I were walking down Broadway Street in downtown Portland checking out the movies. All of a sudden, someone opened a store door and shouted, “The radio says the Japanese just bombed the hell out of us … somewhere called Pearl Harbor!”
My friends and I were in shock. We forgot about the movies and hurried back to the barracks to listen to the radio. Like most Americans, we read about and listened to the ongoing debates regarding the threat of a war with Japan. But we never expected anything to happen that close to home (sound familiar?). Now the facts of the matter were quite different.
On that frightful morning, in what turned out to be a long-planned secret attack, Japanese warplanes appeared suddenly over the unsuspecting U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor and proceeded to bomb or aerial torpedo what was then the mightiest U.S. naval force in history. The next day, President Roosevelt indelibly described 7 December 1941 as “a date which will live in infamy” and declared war on the Japanese.
Like other guys my age, I was gung-ho to join the Marines or Navy and get in the action. I checked in with both recruiting offices thinking there might be an age exception now that we were in a war. The bottom line was at 16, there was no way I could enlist; at 17, I could enlist providing one parent signed a consent form; at 18, I was free to do as I wished.
So I waited out the next ten months, eager to turn 17, and worked as a welder on ships at the Kaiser Vancouver Shipyard. On 30 September 1942, my seventeenth birthday, I took the underage consent form signed by my mother and proudly joined the U.S. Navy.
(Excerpted from BLUEJACKET ODYSSEY, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini, Naval Armed Guard in the Pacific by William L. McGee, BMC Publications, 2000)