HANCOCK COUNTY — Lester Hartley saw Pearl Harbor for the first time on Dec. 6, 1940 — about one year before the naval base was destroyed by Japanese bombers.
It was breathtaking, he said, and unlike anything the 18-year-old Greenfield man who joined the Navy looking for adventure had ever seen.
The water so blue, surrounded by the richest greenery for as far as the eye could see. Not a single skyscraper disrupted the view.
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Then, he never imagined the place would soon be marked by war, he said. He never thought the battleships docked at the harbor would soon be just smoking debris, a black eye marking the beautiful island.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. As Americans gather to remember the day that plunged the United States into World War II, Hancock County residents who witnessed the era — its war, its hardships and its victories — firsthand will also pause to share their stories in hopes the world remembers a day that defined a generation.
Hartley, now 94, is one of only a few thousand Pearl Harbor survivors who still lives to tell the tale of what happened that fateful day — Dec. 7, 1941 — when some 360 Japanese warplanes descended on Hawaii.
Hartley’s memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor is sharp despite his age. The decades that separate him from that day have not clouded his recollection, but they have inspired him to fight harder to hold onto the details.
Sitting at his kitchen table one recent afternoon, Hartley flips through the mementos he collected from that time, including a scrapbook of newspaper clippings his parents put together for him while he was away. He’ll share his story with anyone who asks, he said, but he always starts with the same request: Don’t call him a hero.
“I was just there that day,” Hartley said. “I was just doing what I was told.”
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor just before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941. More than 2,400 Americans were killed, and 1,200 more were injured, experts say.
Hartley was asleep aboard the USS Jarvis and awoke to the sound of hundreds of planes flying overhead.
Like the thousands of soldiers and sailors around him, Hartley sprang into action, taking his post on a .38-caliber gun and prepared to fire toward the sky, he said.
It was muscle-memory by that point, Hartley said. The Jarvis had been stationed at Pearl Harbor for a year in case such an attack were to occur, and its crew had trained for months to know how to respond to an attack.
Miles away, on the shore of a Hawaiian island with a front row seat to history was Virgil Williams, a 26-year-old Greenfield native serving as a U.S. Army military police officer.
Williams, who died in 2015 at the age of 100, loved to take photographs and home videos, said his daughter Becki Simpson. In the years following the war, he’d tell the story of how he had set up a video camera on a tripod at a cliff overlooking Pearl Harbor in the days leading up the attack. He’d hoped to send the film back home to his family in Hancock County to give them a glimpse of the far away island, she said.
The attack distracted him, Simpson remembers her father saying. As the Japanese dropped bombs from overhead, the soldiers stationed on the island ran for cover, and Williams nearly forgot about his cherished camera.
Williams found it a few days later, its film still intact, Simpson said. But he never saw what the camera had captured, instead choosing to hand it over to his superior officers, she said.
Though he didn’t talk about the war often, Simpson knows the film haunted her father. He often wondered aloud, especially as he aged, what might he have seen if only he returned for the camera a few days sooner.
Would he have seen some warning of the attack? Could he have helped keep his fellow fighters safe?
Simpson only convinced Williams to share his memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor on a few occasions, she said. She was maybe 10 or 11 years old the first time he told his story. She’d learned about the attack in a history class at school and came home asking what he knew about it.
His desire for privacy was evidence of the guilt many survivors carried with them, even into their old age, Simpson said.
“I know he never forgot the carnage; he never got over that shock,” she said.
The United States entered into World War II days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and many men — who were teenagers at the time — bravely enlisted in the military or were drafted.
Hundreds from Hancock County were among them, including Greenfield native Harold Jarrett, who joined the Navy a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Jarrett, now 91, said the country was stunned by the attack on Pearl Harbor. He recalls listening to the radio in school as President Franklin Roosevelt spoke with Congress about declaring war on Japan.
He knew right away he wanted to help fight as soon as he was able, he said. He joined the Navy in mid-1942 because it was the only branch of the military that would take a 17-year-old recruit.
After boot camp in the fall of 1943, Jarrett was stationed on a small carrier ship docked at Pearl Harbor before heading out into the Pacific Ocean toward the Philippines.
Most of the damage from the attack had been cleaned up by that time, though reconstruction was still ongoing, even a year and half later, he said.
Though his ship visited Hawaii a few more times before the war was over, Jarrett never returned to Pearl Harbor after he left the Navy.
Williams and Hartley both joined a national organization for Pearl Harbor survivors that regularly organized trips back to the island. Eventually, though, the organization’s membership numbers dwindled, and the trips stopped.
Though Williams didn’t share his memories of Dec. 7 and the years that followed often, he always picked up the phone on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack to remind his children of what happened that fateful day.
“He’d call and say, ‘Do you know what today is?’ and I’d laugh and say, ‘Of course I do, Dad,’” Simpson said.
Over the years, Hartley has shared memories of his time at Pearl Harbor with local churches and service organizations. It was a harrowing experience to live through, and he knows he was lucky to survive it.
“I always say if I was able, I’d do it all over again,” Hartley said.