October 27, 2011
William Richards never imagined what he’d witness 14 months after he enlisted.
He joined the Navy in October 1940 and was required to sign up for seven years. He chose the Navy for its cleanliness and the fact that he could sleep in a bed every night and eat three meals a day.
He was sent to Great Lakes, Ill., for basic training. Then he went to California, where he became a gunner’s apprentice. He was assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania, BB-38.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the ship was in Drydock No. 1 in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard in Hawaii for repairs.
“The morning of the attack, we all ate breakfast at about 5 a.m. I went up topside where all the five-inch guns were at. We didn’t know that we were going to be bombed in a short while,” he said.
The Japanese were coming with more than 350 planes. Their plan was to attack the airfields and the naval fleet in the harbor. The first wave of attack came about 8 a.m.
“You didn’t have time to think. As soon as they sounded the bugler on the big speaker, that’s when we knew we were in trouble,” Richards said. “I ran on the topside to my station, which was to get ready to fire.”
The Pennsylvania was one of the first ships to open fire on the enemy. Seven of the battleships were on Battleship Row near Ford Island, Hawaii. All of them took some sort of hit.
When the attack started, several workmen from the harbor helped wherever they could. Richards noticed one of these men and saw the Japanese blow his head completely off. He wasn’t even in the Navy.
“I jumped down and started handling the shells myself. I was supposed to have been killed, there’s no doubt about it,” Richards said.
He crawled under the seat, set his own shells and took over the gun. He witnessed a lot of men jumping off the ships.
“If the injured couldn’t paddle in the water, they would just die right there,” he said.
The destroyers Cassin and Downes were in front of the Pennsylvania. When the Japanese dive bombers were attempting to hit the Pennsylvania, their incendiary bombs hit the destroyers instead. A massive fire developed, and eventually the Cassin tipped over against the Downes.
Richards remembers one bomb landed on the Pennsylvania. Several men were killed and a 3-inch armory was blown up close to where Richards was.
He said the Japanese planes came so close to the ship, he could see the machine gun operator in the rear of the aircraft.
The crew of the Pennsylvania received credit for shooting down five Japanese planes.
“I’ve thought of everything I could think of why the Good Man left me here. There must be something I was supposed to do,” Richards said.
When the battle was over, he walked over to some other men on the ship. Before he knew it, they grabbed a hold of him, picked him up and took him down to the dock. They called for a medic, insisting that Richards was hurt.
“I had blood from some of my friends on me. I kept telling them until I got to the hospital,” he said.
Once he arrived at the hospital, the staff realized he was right and sent him back to the ship.
He later was sent to the Solomon Islands. He volunteered to serve on a PT boat in New Guinea. They were dangerous boats, which was the reason men had to volunteer.
“PT boats were really the sweetheart of the service, as far as I’m concerned. I enjoyed every hour I had with them. Of course, I was assigned to the big wheel on the deck with the guns,” he said.
He was in charge of taking care of the two torpedoes on board. They chased the Japanese ships out at sea.
“We didn’t get to sink them. We sure bullet-holed them up, though,” he said.
They left base before sun down and didn’t return until sun up. They sometimes went up and down the rivers.
Richards’ captain was named Simpson. Most of the captains of the PTs were great swimmers. Simpson applauded him for his knowledge of how to operate the boats. Sometimes he’d let Richards drive back to shore about three miles out so he could take a nap or a quick swim.
Richards served in the Navy for 20 years and in the Reserves for 10. He retired with the rank of first-class gunner’s mate.
He said serving in the Navy and helping his country “means everything” to him. He turned 89 this fall.