On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941. America was caught sleeping _ but never again. Most of the Pacific Fleet - 96 warships - including the battleships Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and California were riding anchor in the peaceful waters that Sunday morning.
The Japanese attack came in two waves, the first at 7:55 a.m., consisting of 183 planes and the second of 180 planes.
Eight battleships, three destroyers and three cruisers were damaged and sunk, along with 169 aircraft completely destroyed. Another 159 planes were damaged. More than 2,400 servicemen were killed. Approximately 1,100 were wounded. The Arizona blew up and sunk, carrying nearly 1,000 men to a watery grave. Strangely, it was the explosion of the Arizona that saved the repair ship Vestal, anchored nearby and engulfed in flames. The concussion snuffed out the fire, showering bits of charred debris on her deck. Parts of the ship and of men rained down through acrid black air.
Meanwhile, in a radio broadcast to the Japanese Empire, Prime Minister Tojo foretold victory. He boasted that in the 2,100 years of Japanese history their armies had never lost a war.
Seaman Edward David Gross of the Carriger community, 40-year-old husband of the former Pearl Marbut had been called back into the Navy after 16 years service and was in the engine room of the Oklahoma when the Japanese struck. Two weeks after the attack, Mrs. Gross, then living in Long Beach, California, received this message: "The Navy Department regrets to inform you that your husband, Edgar David Gross, is missing." His body was never recovered.
OTHER LIMESTONIANS MISSING
Details of the Japanese attack were slow in materializing. Most Limestonians got their information the following day listening to their battery-powered radios as President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress. Families who had sons stationed on Oahu could only wait.
Otis Cook, of Athens, whose son, Earl, was stationed in Pearl Harbor, didn’t receive a cablegram from the Navy stating that Earl was safe until after New Years Day.
Mrs. Lena Morris didn't know for weeks if her son, Pvt. Pryor Morris, was dead or alive. Then, in January 1942, she received a letter saying he was safe.
More than 60 years later, we "Remember Pearl Harbor," not in revenge, but in reverence as we pause to honor the brave men and women who were America's first line of defense.
JAMES A. BROWN
James A. Brown, a Navy veteran of nearly two decades, was eating breakfast with his wife of less than a year when they heard gunfire and rushed to the back porch. Black smoke already enshrouded Pearl Harbor. Shells burst in midair. The couple rushed back into the house and turned on the radio. "The island of Oahu is under attack by enemy forces," the announcer said. "All military personnel are to return to their posts, ships or stations."
Brown dressed, kissed his bride goodbye, rejoined his unit and went to Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor. "There was devastation everywhere," Brown recalls. "The battleships Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah were tied to concrete pillars near the beach at the end of Ford Island. Smoke rose a half-mile into the air over the Arizona. Japanese torpedoes had hit its oil tank from underneath and the oil was ablaze on top of the water. Sailors were jumping overboard to get away. It was awful."
CLAYTON S. EZELL
Clayton S. Ezell of the Mt. Rozell Community in Northwest Limestone County was aboard the U.S.S. Solace, the only Navy hospital ship at Pearl Harbor. It was anchored off the east end of Ford Island, not far from the Arizona. General Quarters alarms sounded. Everyone rushed for his station, "IT'S A DRILL - IT'S A DRILL!" Nearby sailors shouted. He soon learned that Japanese planes were attacking the fleet and the Naval Air Station on Ford Island. "Ships were being hit with bombs and torpedoes and burning fuel oil from the damaged and sinking ships spread around the ships and harbor. I was one of many corpsman that brought the wounded from motor launches as they pulled alongside our ship."
The U.S.S. Vestal, anchored nearby, was engulfed in flames and the Arizona exploded, its magazine struck by a torpedo. After nightfall, Ezell was ordered to the Naval Hospital, where he helped load sheet or blanket-wrapped bodies brought in from ships in the harbor. "We loaded them in trucks and transported them to the hospital compound and laid their bodies out under trees until room could be made inside the hospital."
The following Monday, Ezell was assigned the grisly task of patrol duty. "Several motor launches daily would patrol around the harbor at sunup and for an hour before sundown to pick up body parts that had floated to the surface."
Pvt. Gilbert Crutchfield of Tanner, a rifleman in the 27th "Wolfhound" Infantry Regiment was bivouacked on Roosevelt High School Football Field overlooking Pearl Harbor. Most of the men in his unit were in Honolulu on weekend passes and all of the officers were absent from camp. Crutchfield didn't have a rifle. It had been sent off for repair several days earlier. Asleep on his folding cot, Crutchfield was jarred awake by exploding artillery shells falling nearby. He sprang from his bed, clad only in his skivvies, and ran out to witness Pearl Harbor under attack. "Everybody was asking, 'What's going on?'" Crutchfield remembers. "There were planes in the air. Finally, somebody said, 'That's Japanese Planes! They're attacking us!' We realized that those exploding shells were anti-aircraft being fired at the planes and it was falling on us." Crutchfield dressed and found a shotgun and five shells. The first sergeant organized the men and they went down to Pearl to guard a railroad track against sabotage.
Crutchfield and three men were dropped off by the side of the road and they walked to the railroad bridge about a half-mile from Battleship Row and took up guard positions. Japanese planes were flying around. "They had expended all of their bombs and ammo and flew over and could look you right in the eye," Crutchfield says, " I looked up directly in the face of one of them. But of course, I had a shotgun and there wasn't much I could do with that."
Crutchfield and his men, with no means of communications, took shelter under a railroad flat car. They knew nothing of what was occurring elsewhere, only what they were witnessing. "We were surprised and we were angry," he says. Sunday night was spent in complete blackout and no chow. The Japanese living in the nearby settlement stayed inside. There was no trouble. Monday, a top boxcar was switched onto the track and Crutchfield and his men positioned a .30-caliber machine gun. Still no food came. Crutchfield dispatched two men to the Japanese settlement to buy food. They returned 30 minutes later, reporting they had found a store, but the proprietor refused to sell them anything. "We'll take care of that. You take me back," Crutchfield said, and went to the store where a lot of people were sitting around. "The Japanese proprietor told me that the military put a restriction on selling anything. I got a loaf of bread, stick of bologna and a carton of Luckys and left the silver dollar on the counter and walked out."
At a nearby garbage dump, Crutchfield's men found an old mattress and made a bed in the boxcar. On Tuesday, water and food arrived. Communications were reestablished and they learned for the first time that the U.S. was at war. The blackout was still in effect. "The civilian train engineer switching cars that night refused to turn off his headlights, said he couldn't see what he was doing. Our First Sergeant walked out on the track and shot out the light with his .45," Crutchfield says. The engineer stopped the train and fled.
On December 6, 1942, Crutchfield sailed with the "Wolfhounds" for Guadalcanal.
J. MONROE BIRDSONG
Pvt. J. Monroe Birdsong of the Carey Community was in the Army Hospital at Schofield Barracks on the morning of the attack. His ulcer was acting up. But being sick didn't mean that he could lounge around. Birdsong and other soldiers were cleaning a doctor’s office. And then a terrifying sound split the peaceful morning. One plane swept low. Says Birdsong, "About that time bullets splattered right down the wall beside us. We made a mad dash back inside. We knew it was the real thing."
Casualties started pouring into the hospital. "Some of them were shot all to pieces," Birdsong says. "They had us out there picking them up and bringing them in and laying them up and down the hall." All the while Japanese planes were strafing with machine guns, flying so low Birdsong could see the pilots’ faces. "If I'd had a weapon, I could have shot 'em, I know. I wished a thousand times that I had one."
Meanwhile, across the street from the hospital where the 27th Infantry Division was housed, soldiers positioned a 30-caliber machine gun on top of the barracks and began firing at the attacking planes. The Japanese repeatedly attempted to bomb a water tank, apparently thinking it was a container tank, but missed.
Shortly, the doctor arrived. He laid a notepad on a table and said, "If anybody feels like going on active duty sign this, get your clothes and take off." Birdsong didn't hesitate. "I was second to sign. I wanted to get out of that hospital."
Birdsong ran to his barracks. His unit, the 1341st Engineer Combat Battalion, was out on the north shore of the island and the battalion commander with them. Only a skeleton crew remained on post. "Our weapons were locked up and nobody had a key except the commander," Birdsong says.
Unarmed and a Japanese invasion expected at any moment, Birdsong spent all day Sunday on the drill field. "We had reports that Japanese were on the island. Everybody was confused and didn't know what was going on. I guess if they had landed with any force, they would have taken the island because we didn't have enough people to defend it."
Birdsong, cut off from communications, knew Oahu had been bombed, but didn't know how extensively. He learned the next day. "I was assigned as a driver to a survey party and we went all around Pearl Harbor. Ships were lying over on their sides still burning. Even from Schofield Barracks about 15 miles away, you could see the black smoke. And that lasted a week."
There was total blackout ordered at the base, all windows covered so that no light could escape. Armed sentries walked their posts around the clock with orders from the Colonel to shoot out lights after two verbal warnings. Birdsong grins as he recalls one incident. "We had an ol' boy that didn't care for nothing. He was nuts. He was guarding around the officers quarters and saw a light. He hollered 'turn it out,' made his round and came back the second time. Same thing. Next time he came around the light was still on and he fired right through the window. It was the Colonel's quarters. Nobody ever said a word."
In 1940, when the draft was initiated, Birdsong had gone to the board. "I didn't want my mother to know I was volunteering," he says. He left home July 11, 1941. The next time he saw his family was May 1945..
JAMES W. JONES
Pvt. James W. Jones, reared at Piney Chapel, had just eaten morning chow and returned to the barracks. He lit a Lucky Strike and lay back on his bunk, smoking and shooting the breeze with other GI's of the 1341st Combat Engineers at Schofield Barracks. He heard aircraft overhead, which wasn't unusual since Wheeler Field Wheeler Field, a fighter base was just across the road from Schofield Barracks. The planes were lined up in a row on the concrete pad in front of the hangars like birds on a fence. The ammo belts had been removed from the planes.
Suddenly, the metal legs of empty bunks danced on concrete floor as explosions shook the barracks. Jones and his buddies dashed outside. "We saw planes coming in dropping bombs and we were confused and didn't know what was happening until we saw that big rising sun on the planes," he says. "The Japanese pilots dropped their bombs, then flew in low, strafing with machine guns. You could see the pilots sitting in there. One crashed close to our barracks. We started going into the barracks and taking cover, but we didn't have much cover to get under."
The hapless soldiers had no weapons with which to fight back. "Our guns and rifles were locked up in the armory room and our supply sergeant was on pass in Honolulu. We didn't have anything. The ammo was up in the mountains in a concrete igloo."
Fortunately, for Jones and his unarmed buddies, the Japanese concentrated their attack on Wheeler Field across the road where "they tore it to pieces with bombs."
Next day, Jones was issued a rifle and ammo and loaded into the back of a truck and driven down to Pearl Harbor to help clean up the destruction. Ships were burning and the blue sky was filled with roiling black smoke. Rumors ran rampant that a Japanese invasion was imminent. Jones remained at Pearl Harbor three days, camping out at nights in a pineapple field. "I remember burying the dead. They dug a long trench and we wrapped 'em -- arms, legs, whatever we could find -- up in sheets and put 'em in there and covered 'em up. I don't know if any dog tags was on 'em or not."
Jones remained on Oahu until he departed to participate in the invasion of Saipan and Tinian. Later he landed on Okinawa, where the final battle of the war was fought.
Jones was on Okinawa when the atomic bomb was dropped.
On Tuesday morning following the attack, Della Tribble, a slender 23-year-old, red-headed farm girl from the Coxey community made local history. Della was the first Limestonian after Pearl Harbor, to volunteer for service.
Della Elaine Tribble had spunk. She boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Athens. After several stops along the way, the bus finally rumbled into Athens. Della got off and walked directly to the courthouse and into the Selective Service office.
"I want to volunteer," she said to the male clerk behind the desk. He had expected volunteers to show up after the bombing, but certainly not a pretty, freckle-faced woman with aqua blue eyes. She was the first to step forward.
"For what?" he asked.
He explained to Della that the Army wasn't accepting women at the present time, but was considering it. Disappointed, Della left the office and walked across Marion Street to Elmore's 5 & 10.
The Selective Service clerk tipped off the Limestone Democrat and reporter Bob Henry Walker hailed Della on the street.
"This guy from the newspaper come and caught me and hollered, 'Hey, I want to talk to you. I heard you wanted to join the Army.' I said yes."
Della accompanied Walker to the Democrat office where he took her photograph and interviewed her for a story.
"I told him I felt like every American should help the country in the present crisis and I'd like to be a nurse."
Her story was front page news. "COUNTY'S FIRST VOLUNTEER," trumpeted the Democrat. Of course, she wasn't accepted into service, but she had tried. Della returned home to the hard, dull life of tenant farming. One of 14 children born to William Wesley and Ida Ann Tribble, Della had quit school in the sixth grade. Her opportunities were limited. She'd ever traveled farther from home than Athens.
In May 1942, Congress authorized the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. The WAACs worked alongside the Army but were not a part of it. In 1943, Congress brought them into the Army and they became the Women's Army Corp. Before the war ended, 150,000 American women served in the WACs.
In February 1943, Della received her call for induction into the WACs and the first stop was Ft. McClellan. "I remember there was one girl had on high heels and she had knocked her heel off her shoe and she was hippity-hopping down through there on one high heel and one low heel."
After taking the oath, Della was sent to Daytona Beach. "They made us clean up the yards and pick up sticks," she says. "They sat us down in the sunshine and read the Articles of War. My girlfriend said I looked like a frog, I was so burned."
In the barracks at night, Della couldn't sleep. "They hollered and told jokes and acted crazy." And she was awfully homesick too. "I'd never been away from home a week in my life. We'd come to Athens on Saturday after chopping or picking cotton all week."
A fellow WAC, Catherine S. Scott, sister of movie star Randolph Scott, befriended Della. It's a friendship that lasted through the years. But Della, whose sister, Irene, and three brothers were in service, wasn't long for the WACs. Her career ended honorably after one month and 14 days. "I got sick and went to the hospital. The doctor said I had an ulcer. They let me go home." She grins, "Boy, was I proud to be home!"
JAPANESE ALIEN SEIZED Meanwhile, on Sunday evening a Limestone County sheriff's deputy continued surveillance of a Japanese alien who was living in a room at Trinity School in Athens. Sheriff Martin F. Whitt, 47, a big man, 6'2", with bright blue eyes, had been Limestone County sheriff since Jan. 16, 1939. Busting up moonshine stills was one thing, dealing with a possible saboteur was something else. Why was a Japanese alien in Athens? Why was he living at the Negro school?
Whitt knew what he had to do. He lifted the black phone receiver on his desk and heard the operator say, "Number please?" "Connect me with the FBI in Birmingham," Whitt said in a commanding baritone voice.
A man answered. Whitt identified himself and got down to business. He reminded the FBI agent of the Japanese alien's presence in Athens. They talked.
"Sure, we can handle that," Whitt finally said, then replaced the receiver.
It was late at night when two FBI special agents arrived in Athens and drove directly to the jail. After being briefed by Sheriff Whitt, they went to Trinity School and observed the surveillance operation. Satisfied that the situation was well in hand, they checked in at Athens’ best, the Ross Hotel on East Washington Street.
Monday morning. The FBI Agents, accompanied by Sheriff Whitt and a deputy, entered the Trinity dormitory, walking briskly down the hallway and stopping in front of the room where the Japanese was staying. An agent rapped on the door. A small man, maybe 5'4" and weighing no more than 128 pounds stood in the doorway obviously bewildered.
An agent flashed his credentials. "FBI. You'll have to come with us!"
The Japanese man meekly complied.
Tsuyoshi Matsumoto, his breakfast barely eaten, slipped on his coat and was escorted to the black Ford, placed in the backseat, then whisked to the county jail where he was booked and fingerprinted.
Shortly, a reporter from the Limestone Democrat, following a tip, arrived at the jail and photographed Matsumoto. The FBI intervened.
"No pictures!" They asked for the negatives and the reporter handed them over.
The reporter's keen eyes observed Matsumoto place an Air Mail letter in his inside coat pocket. He asked Matsumoto what he thought of the conflict between Japan and America.
"I think it very regrettable for both countries," Matsumoto said. "I believe the people of the South realize it more than those of other sections."
"Are you a citizen of the United States?"
"Asiatics are not eligible for citizenship. I wish I were," Matsumoto added wistfully.
Meanwhile, FBI Agents searched Matsumoto's room and found four boxes of materials. The reporter quizzed the agents about the contents of the boxes.
"Stuff we don't like," an agent replied, grimly, but admitted that there were no photographs found in the alien's room.
At the jail, in a concrete room where confiscated moonshine was often stored, Sheriff Whitt interrogated Matsumoto and learned that he was born in Hokkaido, Japan, in 1908.
"How long have you been in the United States?"
"I was first here in 1930 and stayed until 1935, went back to Japan for two years and came back in 1937. I've been here ever since."
Sheriff Whitt immediately got to the point. "Why are you in Athens?"
"I am a minister of the Presbyterian Church."
Whitt leaned back and studied Matsumoto as he told his story.
"I was ordained in San Francisco in 1933, after receiving my college education in Tokyo. I attended San Francisco Theological University and the Union Seminary of Sacred Music in New York," Matsumoto said. "It was at Sacred Music that I met Mr. J.T. Wright, director of Trinity School. I have been his guest here since September."
Reverend Matsumoto remained in jail until Wednesday when Army officers arrived and took him to Ft. McClellan. The Air Mail letter found inside his coat was apparently from a friend on the West Coast.
When Athens mailman, Dewey L. Barker, at FBI request, he had been reporting all of Matsumoto's incoming and outgoing mail for months.
FBI Agents arrested seven persons in Alabama on the Monday following the attack on Pearl Harbor. All were listed as "Dangerous Aliens." Five were German, one Italian and one was Matsumoto.
Bennett Higgins, local funeral home operator, remembers the event well. He says that Matasumoto worked for the American Missionary Association and taught music at Trinity, at the time a private school for black children. Neither Higgins, nor anyone else contacted, knows of Matsumoto's fate.
(Author's Note. This story is based on article that appeared in the December 11, 1941, Limestone Democrat and from an interview with Bennett Higgins, Richard Barker and Anna Lee, daughter of Sheriff Whitt.