Pearl Harbor survivor recalls attack

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Manuel Thomas traces a map of Pearl Harbor as he recounts where each ship was the day of the 1941 attack by the Japanese. A Hawaii native, Thomas worked as a welder in the harbor until after the war.

Sharna Johnson

A single tear gathered in his right eye and slowly trickled down his cheek, reaching his chin before his voice broke.

“In about two and a half years we got those ships fixed — they were all out fighting again,” he said proudly, dabbing at his eye with a tissue.

Manuel Thomas’ finger lovingly traced a map of Pearl Harbor, but he didn’t need it.

At 88 years old, he can still tell where each and every ship was the day paradise was ripped apart.

The harbor was full, a hospital of sorts for wounded ships.

Earlier in the week the USS Shaw had collided with the USS Downes during night maneuvers, damaging both ships.

Just two weeks from his wedding date and eager for extra hours, Thomas volunteered to spend Sunday mending the Shaw’s bow.

The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he and another welder were making their way to where she waited in dry dock.

“All of a sudden here’s these planes coming over us,” he recalled, his voice speeding and his accent thickening.

“We didn’t know what kind of planes they were. There was fires all over.”

The planes were swarming overhead but Thomas remembers vividly looking up at one of the low flying planes as it approached and seeing the Japanese pilot’s eyes behind his goggles as he flew over land toward the ships.

When an officer sped past in a panel truck yelling, “You boys get in the shop, this is the real McCoy — the Japanese are attacking!” he said they didn’t hesitate. They dropped their tools and ran for cover.

About an hour later they emerged to the greatest devastation and most gruesome sight he has ever seen and still sees clearly in his mind nearly 70 years later.

“We walked on the pier and the dry dock; there was nothing left of it,” he said, describing thick smoke and water black with oil.

“They were pulling these bodies out of the water, the water was all full of oil. That’s the thing that upsets me to today — some of them had no arms or legs, they were covered in oil and burned — what a terrible sight.”

Had he been a few minutes earlier, he would have been onboard the Shaw, which exploded after she took heavy fire and her forward ammunition detonated.

After the attack, Thomas and other shipyard workers ran and carried hundreds of mattresses to the hospital for the wounded.

Getting to bed around 2 a.m., he remembers nothing was the same after that day.

They began working 12-hour shifts — welders, riveters, pipe-fitters, apprentices — laboring non-stop to fix the ships and get them to war.

He speaks of the ships as if they were his children, remembering each wound as if he felt it too.

He again dabbed at his eyes as he recalled the workers gathering on the docks about six-months later to cheer for the USS Yorktown as she limped to the dock, her damage so severe from the Battle of Coral Sea she was almost lying on her side with her deck at an angle to the sky.

They were so proud to see her make it back, he said, another tear rolling down his cheek.

They got her fixed and she was back on her way, just a month later, helping to fatally destroy three Japanese ships in the Battle of Midway.

There were so many things he saw in those years, he said, that looking back he wishes he had saved newspaper articles or taken pictures, but his only memento is the Welding Operator’s Identification Card that he carried as a security badge to his job in the ship yard.

Born on the island of Ewa on a sugarcane plantation, Thomas, like many other young people on the islands, at that time a U.S. territory, had jumped at the chance to become a welder at Pearl Harbor in April 1941.

They were offering training and the job more than doubled the 40 cents an hour he was receiving as a welders apprentice. He said it was a good opportunity for an 18-year-old working on the plantations.

He would have preferred joining the military and even tried to enlist as a Navy SeaBee (Construction Battalion), but workers from the harbor were denied enlistment because they were too important to the Navy Yard and the war effort, he said.

“They called it a war effort,” he said. “But nobody thought about the Japanese.”

In the Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, some 2,402 American personnel were killed and another 1,282 wounded.

It was a day that marked a shift in U.S. sentiment about the war, destroying isolationism and motivating shocked Americans to fight.

But the attack also changed the peaceful islands.

Once a place where soldiers and sailors relaxed and enjoyed the easygoing beach life while their ships were docked for repairs, things became more somber after that day, he said.

“They never got a chance (to fight). They bombed (the runways and the ships so they couldn’t) … The Japanese knew what they were doing,” he said. “Everybody was enjoying the islands; going out surfing, happy life. After the war started, nobody talked too much.”

Thomas said the attack didn’t derail him from his wedding plans and he and his wife went on to raise five children on the island of his birth.

After the war ended, Thomas went back to the sugar plantations, driving a truck and using his welding skills to support his family.

Eventually his sons all joined the military and his daughters married military men, leaving the islands.

Retired in 1981, he moved stateside from the islands in 1988, settling in Clovis with his daughter Joanie Spear in 2002.

Joanie said she grew up hearing her father’s stories of Pearl Harbor and saw the reminders — oil floating in the water, bullet holes in the government buildings, annual memorial ceremonies — throughout her youth.

“We want him to talk about it,” she said. “That’s a day that I don’t think, no matter how old he gets, he’ll ever forget.

“He’s a patriot at heart and he’s a veteran in his own sense… We were raised with a very patriotic sense; very proud to be Americans and very proud to be a part of the history.”

In September, Joanie and her husband Chet took Thomas back to Hawaii for his birthday, touring the harbor and revisiting memories.

He has been to the museums and memorials, but the one place he can’t and will never visit is the site of the USS Arizona, where many of the ship’s 1,177 crew members still lie beneath the water.

“It has too many memories, it’s too close to the way I saw things,” he said. “What a thing to see.”

And the islands aren’t the same either, he said, explaining the Hawaii he knew as a child playing in the irrigation ditches, eating sugarcane with friends and having “good fun” continued changing after the war.

But he said the memories, good and bad, are just as crystal clear today as if he were still there.