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Pearl Harbor survivor: ‘I thought this was going to be my last day’

As 75th anniversary approaches, local survivors recall attack that plunged U.S. into WWII.


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The noise of swarming planes and explosions punctured the early morning stillness of a quiet Sunday.

Navy Petty Officers Rolla “Ed” Malan and Frank M. Ruby were about to go to war and didn’t yet know it.

Malan, 96, of Fairborn, and Ruby, 99, of Vandalia, are living survivors of a Japanese bombardment of the U.S. naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941 — 75 years ago this week.

Both men were sleeping when the Imperial Japanese Navy launched “Operation Hawaii” and the first of two waves of attacks spearheaded by aircraft carrier-launched warplanes against U.S. battleships at anchor in Pearl Harbor and Army Air Forces planes at Wheeler, Hickham and Bellows airfields.

The devastating aerial and naval assault would bring the United States into a far flung world war for the second time in less than a quarter century.

‘I could see their faces’

The rumble of bombs and gunfire soon brought the men out of their slumber.

“The bombers were close to the water and I could see their (pilots’) faces,” said Ruby, who was aboard an oil barge laden with tens of thousands of gallons of fuel. “I thought this is going to be my last day.”

Malan’s ship, the mine layer USS Preble, was under repair with no guns or ammunition aboard. He and other crew mates were defenseless, staying in a submarine barracks that morning.

“The noise woke us up,” he said. “Planes flying around banging, banging. We didn’t know what it was. One of the fellas got up, went to the window and a plane went by because he said, ‘That’s Japanese.’ And nobody believed him.”

A USS Preble action report recorded the first wave of the Japanese attack — an onslaught of 183 warplanes from six aircraft carriers — arrive at 7:55 a.m. The second, with 170 aircraft, would begin dropping torpedoes and bombs 45 minutes later, historical documents show.

Within minutes, Malan said he and dozens of other sailors climbed a ladder to the top of the barracks roof while the attack pummeled battleships with torpedoes slicing through the harbor.

“There must have been a hundred sailors out there looking,” he said.

Japanese warplanes aimed toward Battleship Row.

“I looked up and saw some bombers flying high,” Malan said, recalling bombs plummet toward walls of floating gray steel.

“And just a few seconds after that, the Arizona blew,” the then 21-year-old petty officer said. “Just the biggest explosion. Black smoke, flame, everything else and I don’t know how high it went but that was pretty bad.

“That’s about the time I decided this wasn’t too good a place to be,” the retired postal carrier said.

‘It was a mess’

The Japanese attack killed 2,343 U.S. Navy sailors, Marines, and Army Air Forces airmen, and wounded 1,272 others. Another 960 were reported missing, according to records at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

The Japanese military severely damaged or destroyed 18 warships, including the battleships Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Nevada and West Virginia, and destroyed more than 150 U.S. aircraft on the ground.

“It was a mess,” Malan said.

The sinking of the Arizona was the worst, killing 1,177 of the 1,512 men aboard. More than 40 of the dead were Ohioans, according to the National World War II Museum.

In the midst of the attack, Ruby was sitting on a barge with 100,000 gallons of gasoline and 50,000 gallons of diesel oil.

“This was a very good observation point, but not a good place to be from a safety perspective,” the former Navy chief boatswain’s mate would write decades later after a trip to Pearl Harbor to mark the 65th anniversary of the attack.

“Gasoline vapor is a real danger in this situation,” he wrote. “…We had not taken time to enjoy the usual cigarette upon arising that morning. A chilling thought. Suppose someone had discarded a cigarette over the side. The Japanese would have left shouting ‘mission accomplished.’ Fortunately, that didn’t happen.”

The attack would ripple across headlines and radio broadcasts in the United States, sending the nation headlong into a global conflict versus Japan in the Pacific and Nazi Germany and Italy in Europe and Africa.

“Seventy-five years ago, on December 7th, 1941, the country was stunned and angered by news of a devastating surprise attack on Americans. We would later feel the very same shock and outrage on September 11, 2001,” said Jeff Duford, a curator at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which has a collection of historic Pearl Harbor artifacts. “The anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack should give us pause to think about our shared experience with an earlier generation and our country’s timeless strength in overcoming tragedies.”

In the hours and days immediately after the shattering attack, Malan and his shipmates would no longer be unarmed. Each was handed a rifle to prepare for an invading Japanese Army that never landed in Hawaii.

“After a week (the Navy) decided (the Japanese) weren’t going to attack us so they took them back,” he said.

Victory would come through a slog of bloody battles on the seas and islands of the Pacific nearly four years later.

Homecoming

For the first time since war ended more then seven decades ago, Malan returned to Pearl Harbor in September.

Terri Lynn Perkins, a Fairborn art instructor who teaches Malan, befriended the World War II veteran and raised $3,000 to defray part of the cost of the trip across the Pacific.

She and a nurse accompanied him to the Arizona Memorial and the newest USS Preble, a guided missile destroyer Malan compared to the battleships of old.

“I decided it was my mission because Ed has said before he wanted to go to Pearl Harbor but he wasn’t asking me or anybody to take him,” Perkins said.

She and Malan flew to Washington, D.C., last year aboard an Honor Flight — which takes World War II, Korean and Vietnam war veterans to the nation’s capital for a day — and the two often attend Honor Flight homecomings at Dayton International Airport.

She often points out the Pearl Harbor survivor’s presence to others.

“If people don’t know he’s there, that’s their missed opportunity,” she said. “So I always let people know. It’s my joy for people to know him, to know the story.”

Pearl Harbor, again

In October, the remains of Springfield native and Navy sailor William “Billy” Welch, who died that day aboard the USS Oklahoma, were buried in his Ohio hometown. He was 18 when he was killed.

Using DNA identification techniques and dental records, the Defense Department has in recent years exhumed and identified sailors buried without identification in a Hawaii cemetery.

Anne Welch Ianni, the youngest sister of the sailor, was 8-years-old when he died.

“It was tears and tears and tears, that’s what I can remember of the day, just sad,” she said in a recent interview with the Springfield News Sun. “He’s finally home.”



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