It was 80 years ago, but Navy veteran James DeWitt still remembers all the details, and the remarkable pain, of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
The morning of the attack, Chief Yeoman DeWitt was aboard the USS Antares, an unarmed cargo ship with a barge in tow.
“We could see the planes,” DeWitt, 100, recalled in a recent interview with Honor Flight Chicago, which takes veterans to visit the World War II Memorial and other sites in Washington, D.C.
“My best buddy was talking and he says, ‘What is it? What is it? What is it?’ I says, ‘Well I don’t know, but they’re not our planes.’”
The Antares had arrived at the entrance to Pearl Harbor about 5:30 a.m., only hours before the attack. There was a full moon above the harbor, he recalled.
“They had everything planned right down to a T,” DeWitt said of the Japanese assault.
Before the attack, DeWitt said, his ship had spotted a small Japanese submarine following them. It was quickly located and sunk by the destroyer USS Ward, but it soon was clear the day would become much more violent.
Shortly after the submarine was destroyed, DeWitt remembers seeing Japanese planes “diving in and out” of the harbor, and smoke from distant explosions filling the air. Then, the planes got closer.
“There was eight of us up on the bow of the ship watching what looked to be a dogfight,” DeWitt said. “All the sudden you could hear the plane close and it was the Japanese Zero [fighter plane]... About that time they opened fire, we hit the deck.”
Nobody aboard the Antares was killed, and only one serviceman was injured, but the ship had to carefully zig-zag toward Honolulu to avoid any other Japanese planes.
While DeWitt and his ship were spared, he still remembers the painful scenes at the military hospital the next day.
“So many of the casualties were burns, and the smell was awful. Plus the smell of the oil burning in the water, still floating around, some of them in the water floating around with fire on them.”
Most of all, DeWitt remembers the cries of the wounded servicemen.
“I went through the main bedroom area [of the hospital] and you could hear a cry and awful sounds,” he said. “I think the worst thing of all was, I went by and a kid was calling for his mother. This was unbelievable.”
DeWitt married after the war; he and his late wife, Mary, had four children. He owned and operated Lake Shore Lanes in Culver, Ind. from 1953 to 1977. He now resides at an assisted-living facility in South Bend.
In September 2010, Dewitt went on an Honor Flight Chicago trip, visiting the World War II Memorial.
“As long as someone wants to hear it, I’ll keep telling it,” DeWitt said of his story. “A lot of young people don’t know anything about it. And I enjoy talking to people.”