Veteran remembers days of Pearl Harbor attack

Sharna Johnson

After Dec. 7, 1941, seeing a 17- to 19-year-old boy anywhere was rare, recalls Richard Sullinger.

Whether they were drafted or enlisted of their own accord, they were a minority in small-town America.

“They began to disappear in a hurry, the 19- to 18-year-olds particularly,” the 86-year-old Clovis veteran said.

“It wasn’t a good time. I think people expected you to go … if you were a healthy young man, you didn’t want to be seen on the streets. It was a tough and trying time.”

Today is the 69th anniversary of 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.

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

Sullinger, who was 17 at the time, recalls hearing news of the attack on the radio where he was working with the railroad in Missouri.

He had just graduated from high school the previous May and had already seen many of his class mates go off to serve. The attack on Pearl Harbor stepped up the tempo dramatically.

“As I recall, it was pretty scary for us anyway. We had one boy (from school) (who) was killed on the (USS) Oklahoma,” he said.

Following the attack, Sullinger said there was heavy anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. and constant fear of attack.

“Most of those little towns, Japanese prisoners would not have been accepted with any enthusiasm … they (the town residents) even talked of forming a militia,” he said.

“They figured the Japanese would land — in the little town I was raised in that was the feeling.”

Just a little more than two years later, Sullinger enlisted, choosing to go into the Navy.

And while he may not have been there for the beginning of it all, he was at the front of the line to see the end.

A radioman aboard the USS San Diego, he found himself on the first ship to enter Japanese waters on its way to Tokyo Bay for the surrender of the Japanese in 1946.

“The fact that we were going to get out of the thing and get home created a lot of excitement,” he said.

Many of the Pearl Harbor survivors he once knew are now gone, he said, and as the older group of American boys who went to war ahead of him and his peers, those who still live would now be in their 90s.

Pearl Harbor survivors are dwindling in number as each passing year claims more of them.

“We’re not aware of local veteran who was at Pearl Harbor when the attack happened,” said Jim Cowman, Marine Corps representative to the area’s Joint Veterans’ Council.

But there are plenty who responded to the call after the attack and even more who remember.

Chuck Haas got his father to sign for him and joined the Navy 17 days after the attack along with a group of young men in his hometown of Philadelphia.

“I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was,” he said, recalling as a 17-year-old boy, he had other things on his mind at the time. “I found out where it was later that same day… all the guys said, ‘Hey let’s go enlist,’ and that was the big thing.”

That decision took him to Normandy, France, where on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Haas ended up ferrying troops from anchored ships to land during the second wave of the assault against the Germans on Omaha Beach.

He went on to serve in the Army Air Corps then the Air Force, giving almost 23 years to the military.

“Pearl Harbor was the battle cry similar to ‘Remember the Alamo’ — the lynchpin that put us into the war,” said John Garcia, New Mexico Department of Veterans Services cabinet secretary.

“Many New Mexicans fought in Pearl Harbor and died there, and many died as a result (of Pearl Harbor).”

Garcia said a dinner is being held tonight in Santa Fe to recognize and honor survivors and those who died in the attack.