Jack Stoeber still remembers the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.The Milford man was there, a sailor aboard the USS Whitney, a destroyer tender moored in Pearl Harbor the morning of the attack.”I had just gotten out of the shower and I was going to meet my uncle, who lived out in Waikiki,” Stoeber, 93, recalled this week. “I was set to make the first liberty boat.”
At 7:55 a.m. Hawaiian time, 181 Japanese planes began the first wave of the attack that would thrust America into World War II.
The attack killed 2,390 and wounded 1,178. Seventeen Connecticut men were among the dead.
A day later, in asking Congress to declare war on Japan, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said Dec. 7, 1941, was a “day that shall live in infamy.” The attack shocked and enraged what to that point had been a divided nation. Americans became united.
At Pearl Harbor, battleship row took the brunt of the Japanese attack. The seven battleships moored together were a primary target and that is where most Americans died that morning.
The USS Arizona exploded and sank, killing 1,177 sailors. Most of those men remain inside the vessel’s hull, which to this day rests on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Ten of the Connecticut men who died that day were aboard the Arizona.
The USS Oklahoma lost 429 of its crew, the West Virginia 106 men and the California 105. Aboard the California was another Connecticut man, Thomas Reeves of Thomaston, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for what he did that day. When mechanical ammunition hoists on the California failed, Reeves went into a smoky passageway to continue supplying antiaircraft ammunition by hand. He was eventually overcome by the fire and smoke.
“Remember Pearl Harbor,” was a rallying cry throughout the war, and in the years afterward, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association worked to carry on that message. Three years ago, the Connecticut chapter disbanded, its ranks thinned by old age and the deaths of so many members.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Stoeber said, remembering the morning of the attack. “I saw these Jap planes flying over. I couldn’t believe my eyes. How the hell did they get in here?”
Stoeber went to his battle station.
“I manned the .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun,” Stoeber said. He opened up on the Japanese planes and saw the tracer rounds from his gun slice into several Japanese planes. Stoeber said he’s pretty sure he helped bring down at least one.
The sky was filled with lead as most ships in the harbor and batteries on shore fired at the attackers. One member of Stoeber’s gunnery crew was wounded by a falling piece of shrapnel.
From where the Whitney was anchored, Stoeber said he could see battleship row.
“I saw the Arizona when she blew up,” he recalled. “It was some blast. I saw the old Utah rolling over. I remember saying to myself, ‘There are men dying over there.'”
Some Army pilots managed to get planes into the air, although the odds were against them — 2nd Lt. Gordon H. Sterling Jr. of West Hartford got an outmoded P-36 fighter into the air and reportedly managed to shoot down a Japanese plane before he was shot down. His body was never found.
Wildcat fighters arriving at Hickam Field from the USS Enterprise hours after the attack were fired on by anti-aircraft gunners at Pearl Harbor. Navy Lt. Eric Allen of Darien, who was flying one of the Wildcats, was killed.
Pearl Harbor remained a hectic place in the days after the attack, Stoeber recalled. Death and damage were everywhere. But crews went to work making repairs and preparing for war.
Stoeber’s ship eventually sailed from Pearl Harbor in April 1942 to carry out its mission of resupplying destroyers.
Stoeber said Dec. 7, 1941, will never leave him.
“Every once in a while I dream about it, I dream about the attacks,” he said. “I can see the Jap planes flying over. I’ll never forget that day.”