via Verne Strickland usadotcom 12/5/2014
Emotions still vivid for Pearl Harbor survivor
"The flesh was just coming off of their burned bodies — it was horrible," Priest, 93, said between soft sobs about that day 72 years ago.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan unleashed a furious air assault on the Hawaiian harbor, home to the U.S. Pacific fleet.
Japanese aircraft hit their mark that Sunday morning — sinking three battleships, causing one to capsize, and severely damaging four others.
The attack claimed the lives of more than 2,400 servicemembers and 1,000 civilians — and led to the U.S. entry into World War II.
Priest, who turned 21 the day before the attack, was stationed at Camp Malakole with the 251st Coast Artillery Regiment of the California National Guard.
When his regiment arrived on the island in September 1940, the men lived in tents while they built the infrastructure of the camp.
"We were breaking up coral rock with rock crushers to make gravel and rock for roads and build foundations for the barracks. We finished the barracks a few months before the attack."
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A typical day at Camp Malakole included four hours of building and four hours of anti-aircraft gun practice.
"The morale was really high," he said. "We really turned into a nice family."
But four or five months before the attack, they started an island patrol.
"We were waiting for something," he said.
He spent the night of his 21st birthday on guard duty at Hickam Field, an air base adjacent to Pearl Harbor.
On the morning of Dec. 7, Priest and a group of buddies were returning from chow when they heard "big gun" sounds across the island.
"Our anti-aircraft guns were firing away," he said. "Japanese aircraft were all over the sky."
The barracks, airfield and battleships were ablaze as the enemy pummeled Pearl Harbor with bombs and machine gun fire.
Priest's job was mapmaking, which included plotting gun positions around the island. Since he was familiar with the locations, he was called to pick up his skipper and drive him around to check on these sites.
Within 10 minutes, he and the skipper were on their way to Pearl Harbor, about a 6-mile drive.
Enemy aircraft "flew over us and missed us," he said. "The coral rock was flying up from the bullets."
By the time they reached the harbor, the second wave of enemy bombers had arrived.
"We saw the skies filled with aircraft, dive bombers and torpedo planes diving on and torpedoing our ships. The harbor was ablaze with thick oil burning all around the ships."
While idling in the car for a moment, the men watched the USS Nevada trying to use the only escape route out of the harbor.
"(That's) when a dive-bomber exploded a bomb on her and about the same time a torpedo bomber sent a fish (torpedo) into her side, just below her water line. The brave skipper quickly gave her a right-rudder and beached her on a shoal out of the way of the harbor," Priest said.
The USS Arizona sank before their arrival, "but we saw the rest of our battleships that were tied up right close to her all ablaze," he said.
There were small boats in the water, with men reaching out with boat hooks to pull sailors from the burning oil.
"Some were burned severely, others burned to death," he said.
Priest said it feels "like a another lifetime" since the attack, but 72 years later, vivid, visceral memories still haunt him.
Priest and other local survivors planned to meet for lunch Saturday.
The Palm Springs/Yucca Valley chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association officially closed down earlier this year, following on the heels of the disbanding of the National Pearl Harbor Survivors Association on Dec. 31, 2011.
The number of survivors who were able to attend meetings and serve on the board had grown too small to continue running the organization.
A Desert Sun story dated Dec. 7, 2001, listed the names of 29 local survivors. Only six remain.
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