Pearl Harbor Vet Recalls Historic Moment Bitterly

Retired Mount Airy Chiropractor Served Aboard Minelayer

December 08, 1991|By Daniel P. Clemens Jr. | Daniel P. Clemens Jr.,Staff writer

Just before 8 a.m., Bill Coburn saw the planes buzzing through a mountain pass near Ford Island.

The 23-year-old Navy engineer gave itlittle thought. For weeks, U.S. aircraft had flown exercises over Pearl Harbor on Sunday mornings.

Coburn figured Dec. 7, 1941, was no different.

So he was savoring a few quiet moments on the deck of his ship, the USS Ramsay, after working since 4 a.m. in the searing heat of the engine room.

"After living in the engine room, it was nice to get a breath of fresh air," said Coburn, now a 73-year-old Mount Airy resident.

Yet, as the planes hurtled toward Ford Island, Coburn, a chief machinist mate on the Ramsay, was struck by the feeling that something wasn't right.

"I saw the planes come through the pass," he said. "There was something weird about them, but I couldn't tell what it was.

"Then I saw the red balls on them -- I knew we were in trouble. Then they dropped the first bombs."

Within moments, death and destruction rained from the sky, as the Japanese unleashed the two-pronged sneak attack that laid waste to the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. When the smoke cleared, 2,433 U.S. servicemen were dead and 1,178 wounded, 19 warships were sunk or heavily damaged and 188 planes were destroyed and 159 damaged.

And the United States had been drawn into World War II.

"You're in a fog, like a terrible dream that's happening to someone else," he said of the early moments of the attack.

On Wednesday, nearly 50 years after the Pearl Harbor attack, Coburn took time to recount what he remembers about the horror and pandemonium that prevailed on the "day that will live in infamy."

"I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be 55 years of age, because I thought that was the day we'd die," said Coburn, a retired chiropractor. "It was almost certain, the way things were going around us."

For U.S. servicemen, there was little time to do anything but scramble to their battle stations and try to mount a defense -- no time toput the event in perspective, no chance to assign it a meaning.

"You don't really have time to give yourself a talking-to, as to why it all was happening," Coburn said. "You couldn't even see that much because of all the smoke and everything. It happened such that you couldn't even panic."

William J. "Doc" Coburn was born in Baltimore and joined the U.S. Navy at age 17. By 1941 he found himself stationedat Pearl Harbor aboard the Ramsay, a destroyer commissioned in 1914 that had been converted to a minelayer.

Coburn's assigned battle station was the engine room. But as the raging Japanese attack unfolded, an ensign ordered him to man the 5-inch gun at the Ramsay's stern.

"We fired a few shots, although we didn't really know how to aim the thing," he said, adding that the gun's sights had been removed. "They were dropping bombs all around us, but fortunately the ship was not hit."

Later, low-flying Japanese planes strafed the ships withmachine guns. At one point, desperate U.S. servicemen were reduced to throwing potatoes at the planes as a means of defense, Coburn said.

When the attack began to subside, Coburn and some

others boarded a small boat and set out to investigate a Japanese plane that had been downed in the harbor. On the way, Coburn saw an injured serviceman struggling in the water. The man stretched his arms, reaching for the boat.

"I reached out to grab him," Coburn said quietly. "And the flesh just came right off in my hands. He sank back into the waterand we never saw him again."

Looking back, Coburn harbors bitterness about the attack and other aspects of the war. Like many World War II veterans, he believes the nation's political and military leaders were oblivious to -- or, worse yet, ignored -- clear signs that a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent.

"I believe we were sold out," Coburn said.

For the crew of the Ramsay, the months afterPearl Harbor were filled with chasing Japanese submarines and layingmines in the South Pacific. And, after surviving Pearl Harbor, Coburn's experiences in World War II came full circle.

In August 1945, he was on the USS Southerland, about 100 miles off the Japanese coast, when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The crew didn't know what was going to happen Aug. 6. It got a clue when a tidal wave, created by the shock wave from the Hiroshima bomb, liftedthe Southerland and six other nearby destroyers some 100 feet off the ocean's surface. Triggered by an atomic blast equal to 20,000 tons of TNT, the wave heaved the ships upward and then passed underneath, leaving the ships to slam down onto the sea. All seven ships were damaged, Coburn said.

Then, with Coburn at the forward lookout, the Southerland was the first ship to enter Tokyo Bay after the bombing. Later he was among the first to enter the devastated cities. Only thendid he realize what fury the atomic bomb had unleashed.

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