Barnum grad revisits Pearl Harbor … 75 years later
Barnum graduate Donald Long (Class of 1939) has never forgotten the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and six other military bases on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and sank the PBY-5 plane he was guarding.
And now he will never forget Dec. 7, 2016. That’s because Long was one of 29 survivors of that attack who traveled to Oahu last week to take part in the events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the attack that precipitated America’s entry into World War II.
“It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my lifetime,” the 95-year-old Long said in an interview from his home in California Monday, the day after his return.
While they were in Hawaii, the veterans — who ranged in age from 92 to 102 years old — attended many ceremonies and speeches and one very fancy dinner, visited different area schools and made their own personal trips of remembrance, courtesy of The Greatest Generation Foundation (TGGF) and its sponsors.
The Barnum native — who has driven cross country to Carlton County for the past several summers to fish and visit old friends and family — said he thought about his experience riding in the Cloquet Fourth of July parade last summer as he rode in another convertible for the parade through Oahu on Dec. 7.
“They say everyone in Hawaii was at that parade,” he said with a chuckle. “It was pretty amazing.”
It was Long’s second visit to Hawaii since WWII, but his first with fellow soldiers.
“Of course, I knew none of those guys personally,” he said. “All the ones I knew have died. But we all had enough in common with all the events that occurred that day that it was almost like you knew them before.”
Long said he was very interested to hear how one of the men was on the USS Ward, the destroyer that sank the Japanese mini-submarine as it was trying to get into the harbor “only hours before the war started.”
Of course, he has his own story to tell as well.
75 YEARS AGO
By December 1941, Long had been in the Navy for nine months, and was stationed at Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station — across the island of Oahu from Pearl Harbor — as part of the VP-12 squadron. That morning he was assigned to be aboard one of the planes anchored out in the bay. (Because the squadron didn’t have enough sets of wheels, three of the planes always had to be in the air or water.)
His watch began at 7:45 a.m. that morning, when he was dropped off at the PBY-5, aka the Catalina Flying Boat.
Just before 8 a.m. he was looking toward the shore for the signal lights when suddenly he heard the sound of aircraft flying nearby and the sound of explosions. He initially assumed it was the Army Air Corps out for some Sunday morning practice runs.
Wrong. Kaneohe Bay was attacked five minutes before Pearl Harbor.
“The sequence of events over the next few minutes is not entirely clear,” he said. “I saw aircraft flying over the hangars and explosions and fires on the ground. Moments later a plane anchored near mine began to burn violently after being strafed. (The old aircraft fuel tanks were not ‘bullet proof’ and the fuel leaked out and was ignited by the shells.) Seconds later, one of the attacking planes made a run in my direction.”
Long bolted from the pilot’s seat and went to grab a life jacket as the bullets hit his plane.
“I remember seeing little water fountains shoot up as the machine gun bullets went through the bottom of the plane,” he said. “They hit the wing tanks, too, and almost immediately the entire plane was engulfed in flames — with me in the middle of the fire. At this point, I know I thought, ‘Get out!’ and I dashed toward the rear exit through the flames with no more thoughts of a life jacket.”
He dove into water covered with burning gasoline. Luckily, Long could swim.
“We were taught to swim through fire on water during boot camp,” he said. “I don’t recall being burned, but I found out later that I was. I was aware of how difficult it was to swim with my shoes on — heavy, high-top, regulation work shoes.”
When he got 15 to 20 yards from the plane, Long went under water and removed his shoes. In the meantime, the attacking planes made one or two more runs on the plane he’d been guarding and the seaplane, with its wingspan of 100 feet, quickly sank.
Only two or three minutes had passed since the attack began, but when Long looked around, the hangars and planes on shore were all burning. The planes on the water were either burning or had sunk.
“The attacking planes were low enough so I could see the rising sun markings [of Japan] and I must have realized we were under attack, but my first thoughts were of my personal well being because I was still floundering out in the bay some 1,000 to 2,000 yards from shore,” he wrote in an account of the day.
He spied a channel marker about 100 yards away and swam over to it. A triangular structure anchored to a thick wooden base about four feet square, he climbed on top and spotted a boat that was out looking for survivors. They took him back to shore, where Long was greeted by shipmates who had thought he was a goner.
Long was the only survivor off the three planes that had been in the water, he found out later. And while only 20 died at Kaneohe Bay — a fairly small Navy base — that morning, the assault claimed the lives of more than 2,500 people, wounded 1,000 more and damaged or destroyed 18 American ships and nearly 300 airplanes, according to the history.com website.
“I was told I looked pretty bad,” said Long, who was awarded a Purple Heart medal for his injuries in the line of duty. “My head, face and arms were burned and I suppose the oil and salt water didn’t help my appearance. I was taken to sick bay where, by comparison to other survivors, I was in perfect health.”
After being treated and bandaged, Long was back on the job the same morning to guard against possible Japanese landing parties. A day or two later, he was pictured in a Duluth newspaper as a local boy who survived the attack that shocked the nation. The oldest of Bert and Anna Long’s six children, the news that he survived the attack was greeted with much relief by family and friends at home in Minnesota.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
According to The Greatest Generation Foundation (tggf.org) website, the three main goals of the TGGF-organized 2016 journey to Pearl Harbor were as follows:
To provide the returning survivors with the opportunity to revisit their past fields of battle, thereby gaining closure and putting to rest some of the memories they have wrestled with for decades;
To educate youth and future generations about the meaning of honor, duty, and sacrifice as was defined and defended by these veterans years ago; and
To provide a forum for veterans to share their stories which will serve to accomplish goals 1 and 2, and will also help bridge international and intergenerational gaps.
While he was in Hawaii last week, Long made two personal trips without the entire group of veterans. One of them was to the air station in Kaneohe where the Navy then took Long (and another survivor who was in the same kind of squadron on the other side of the island) out to the exact spot where Long’s plane sank all those years ago.
“We say ‘exact spot’ because there’s something on the bottom of the bay that showed up on the depth finder,” he said, explaining the wreckage of the plane discovered in 2015. The PBY-5 — which could hold an eight-man crew and four 500-pound bombs — now sits in pieces roughly 30 feet below the water, encrusted with coral.
“We placed leis on the water to honor and commemorate my squadron mates who died there,” Long said. “It was sad, but very, very nice.”
Long also made a return visit to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where he had been a guest of the Navy in 1942. There is a photo of Long sitting on a balcony there that was published in a book, and Long and TGGF photographer John Riedy tried to recreate the image. They found the same spot, but the wall was higher now and there is substantially more development in the background of the two photographs.
Riedy, a San Diego-based photographer, has been shooting for TGGF for nine years and has traveled to 24 different programs commemorating the various battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. He said the work for TGGF has become the centerpiece of his career.
“I can't tell you how many times I've cried while photographing them,” said Riedy of the veterans he has followed all over the world. “I'd guess it happens on almost every program. You just can't help get moved watching, not only the emotions bubbling up in the vets after often suppressing them for 70-plus years, but also the unbelievable gratitude displayed by the people our veterans liberated. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved.”
Want to know more? Visit the tggf.org website