Chuck Bailey: Remembering attack on Pearl Harbor

May 28, 2001November 7, 2007 

Chuck Bailey doesn't need the new blockbuster "Pearl Harbor" to see Sunday morning sunshine turn into fire. He just closes his eyes.

"People ask if I'm going to the movie," he said. "I say, `No, I lived it, so why should I go see it?' "

Bailey is 80, a Patton Township resident long retired from the Navy and a career in newspaper production. His hair is a shock of white, his smiling face creased from the sun and sea, his voice gravelly from a laryngectomy.

But 60 years ago, on Dec. 7, 1941, he was a young machinist's mate and eyewitness to history. All around his ship Japanese bombs and torpedoes drop-ped in a surprise attack that killed almost 2,400 Americans, crippled the U.S. Pacific Fleet and thrust this nation into war.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his famous declaration of war, called it "a date which will live in infamy." Bailey has never forgotten.

Planes wheeled above him and skimmed across the harbor. Battleships broke in two and keeled over. Smoke billowed into the Hawaiian sky and flames danced on the waves.

One minute Bailey was asleep on the deck of the USS Dobbin, a destroyer tender. The next, he and his shipmates were running for their battle stations -- astonished, angry -- as explosions roared and gunfire pocked the air.

The battle took two hours. Bailey stayed on alert for three days. For a lifetime he has kept his memories -- and rarely shared them.

"I just didn't want to talk about it," he said.

Until now.

`The water was on fire'

Raised in Erwin, Tenn., near the Kentucky border, Bailey joined the Navy in 1939. Two years later, he visited boot-camp buddies on the battleship USS Arizona after shore leave in Honolulu.

It was 3:30 a.m., Dec. 7.

Bailey, a petty officer second class, took the last liberty boat back to his ship. Tethered to it were five destroyers. Battleship Row lay nearby, around the corner of Ford Island.

The night was warm and Bailey went to sleep on the fantail deck, his cot under a canvas tarp. With no duty the next morning, he planned to sleep in.

Around 8 a.m., explosions shook him awake.

"When I raised up and looked, I saw the bombing on Ford Island," Bailey said.

He and three shipmates who also had been dozing stood at the rail in their underwear, dumbfounded. War with Japan had been expected sometime soon, but not like this, not this way.

Japanese planes, their Rising Sun emblems clearly visible, swooped over Ford Island Naval Air Station and set it ablaze. Torpedo bombers came in low, straight for the battleships.

One plane, after making its run, flew so close to the Dobbin's stern that Bailey glimpsed the faces of the pilot and gunner. He remembers they appeared surprised, as if they couldn't believe the Americans were standing there in their skivvies.

"With their mouths open and their eyes looking at us," he said. "They could have pulled the trigger and killed us." Over the Dobbin's loudspeaker, orders squawked. No drill. Man battle stations. Just then, about 150 yards away, the Arizona detonated.

"I saw her come right out of the water," Bailey said. "She raised right up and fell down and broke into two." She sank rapidly, a grave to more than 80 percent of her 1,500-man crew. Heat and acrid black smoke rushed over the Dobbin from the blast.

"The water was on fire," Bailey said.

Grabbing his white dungarees, he rushed forward to his station. He left in time. Off the stern, a bomb exploded and killed the other three sailors.

"They used my blanket to cover them up," Bailey said.

He dressed as he ran. One sailor staggered into view, mortally wounded by shrapnel.

"He got almost close to me and dropped dead," Bailey said. "You could hear him screaming a mile away." Before long, Bailey found himself below deck. He and others tried to clean 50-caliber machine guns scheduled for installation and still in packing grease.

They finished too late.

But as they toiled, the destroyers alongside opened up with furious barrages. Bailey believes their fire -- some of which reportedly landed unexploded in distant Waikiki Beach -- kept planes from blowing up the Dobbin, which was loaded with hundreds of depth charges, torpedoes and antiaircraft shells.

"We'd still be going God knows how far," he said.


By about 8:30 a.m., the first attack ended.

"It was like the Fourth of July fireworks," Bailey said. "The explosions went on and on."

A second wave struck. When the firing stopped, 21 ships were sunk or damaged. Nearly 200 American planes were de-stroyed. Twenty-nine Japanese aircraft were shot down.

That evening, the sun set on ruin.

"It was just sickening -- that's all you can describe it," Bailey said. "I just couldn't believe it."

He remained on alert, his uniform rumpled and filthy. Wild rumors swept the harbor: More planes were coming; Japanese forces had invaded the island. Nobody knew what was really happening.

"I didn't sleep a wink for three days," he said.

Word came of Roosevelt's address. The sailors went about their business: Their war had already begun. Ships needed repairs; men needed burials.

Unlike some of his shipmates, Bailey wasn't assigned to grave detail. But like many, he lost friends -- seven of them.


Around Christmas, the Dobbin left Pearl Harbor behind, bound for New Guinea.

Later, on the transport USS Edgecomb, Bailey took part in the Philippines invasion and the battle for Okinawa, where he survived kamikaze attacks. During the Korean War, he served on the battleship USS Iowa.

In 1959, he retired from the Navy a chief petty officer, then worked for 21 years at the Orlando Sentinel-Star as a production manager.

Sixteen years ago, he and Kay, his wife of 51 years, moved from Orlando to Centre County to be near their only child, Susan Springer, an office manager for a local doctor.

As a child, Springer, 49, heard little about Pearl Harbor. Her father would tell war stories about people and situations, but never battles.

Then, in 1982, she met her parents in Pearl Harbor on her way back from Australia. They went to the Arizona memorial and Bailey pointed out the names of buddies still entombed below the waves. Finally, he opened up to his daughter.

"I think that's really the first time I realized how important it is to him," Springer said. "He loved the Navy, and he loves his country."

Springer's three children -- Khaki, 21; Beth, 19; and Stephen, 9 -- are proud of their grandfather. So are motorists who pass his blue Buick on the highway, see his Pearl Harbor survivor license plate, and honk and salute.

He is one of a dwindling few. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, to which he be-longs, claims that 7,804 servicemen remain from the approximately 85,000 who fought that day.

The association has a mission, Bailey said: Never let the world forget Pearl Harbor. It lives in Bailey, in his compact frame, in his raspy voice, in the dress uniform in which he wants to be buried, in the memories that sadden him every anniversary.

"Mostly, and above all, my friends and shipmates I knew that were killed then," he said. "They were young like me, and they didn't have a life."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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