Pearl Harbor attack still vivid for survivor
William Clothier is now one of fewer than 3,000 living survivors of the attack, according to staff members at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A day to remember
PEARL HARBOR REMEMBRANCE DAY is Dec. 7. In 1994, Congress designated this national observance to honor the more than 2,400 military personnel who died on this date in 1941 during the surprise Sunday morning attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by Japanese forces.
The attack on Dec. 7, 1941, described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an address to Congress as "a date which will live in infamy," pulled the United States into World War II. The attack was the deadliest by an enemy on U.S. soil until the Sept. 11 attacks.
A memorial at the USS Arizona — the battleship struck by a catastrophic bomb blast, killing 1,177 — was dedicated in 1962. Annual observances and private funerals for veterans take place there.
• More information on the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument: www.nps.gov/valr
• Audio of Roosevelt's address to Congress: americanrhetoric.com/speeches/fdrpearlharbor.htm
William Clothier was a 20-year-old Marine private aboard the battleship USS Nevada when Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The Burien man, now 89, remembers that he and a buddy were preparing to attend church on shore, hoping to meet "a better class of girls" than those who frequented the Black Cat Tavern in downtown Honolulu. He said it was a bright, beautiful Sunday morning, just before 8 a.m., when explosions shattered the quiet.
"One day you're going to church, and two hours later you're walking with blood on your feet and all your friends are dead," Clothier recalled.
He is now one of fewer than 3,000 living survivors of the attack, according to staff members at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Park Service and the Navy, which jointly operate the monument, Tuesday will dedicate a new, $56 million museum and commemorate the 69th anniversary of the attack that killed more than 2,400 and launched the country into World War II.
Clothier said the day remains "crystallized in memory," something the intervening years of raising a family and a career in public affairs at Boeing have done little to diminish.
The living room of his modest ranch-style house in Burien features historic photos and artists' re-creations of the date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would "live in infamy." A picture shot from one of the attacking Japanese planes shows a battleship in flames. Another shows the dramatic explosion of the destroyer Shaw, hit by a bomb meant for the Nevada.
Europe already had been at war for two years when Clothier, a Kansas farm boy, enlisted in the Marines in 1940. Although the United States hadn't entered the conflict, he said, he had no illusions about what he was signing up for.
"We knew enough about world affairs to know that war was coming," he said.
Still, no one expected the unprovoked Japanese attack that December morning.
Suddenly in battle
Clothier said he heard a burst of machine-gun fire from the Nevada's deck, followed by a sergeant running through the Marines' compartment ordering men to their battle stations.
Shortly after the airstrike began, the Nevada was torpedoed on the port bow and took two bombs forward. Without their captain, who was still ashore, or the tugboats that usually guided battleships up the harbor channel, the crew got the ship under way, swung clear of the burning Arizona and raced past the other battleships in the harbor, Clothier said.
That only made the Nevada a target for a returning wave of Japanese planes, he said. Five more bombs hit the ship, including one between Clothier's gun casemate and one opposite it. He said the ship was in danger of sinking in the middle of the channel, blocking access to the entire harbor. But the crew was able to maneuver it into shallow water, where it was beached.
Clothier said he and surviving crew members spent the afternoon on the deck moving ammunition away from fires and carrying bodies ashore.
"By then," he said, "they weren't bodies, they were mostly pieces."
Later that day, he and other crewmen were ordered to stand sentry on shore in a sugarcane field. His officers thought the Japanese had invaded Oahu, cut off the naval base and planned a ground attack.
The sun that evening burned red as it sank through a pall of smoke blanketing the harbor. Clothier said he and the other surviving crewmen realized they hadn't eaten all day. The galley had been blown to bits by one of the bombs, and the lower decks were flooded. He said the men were relieved when a tugboat chugged up with drinking water, hardtack and canned corned beef.
Congress declared war the next day.
Back to peacetime
Clothier left the Marines in 1947. He came to the Pacific Northwest, earned a journalism degree at the University of Oregon and met his future wife, Mae, to whom he would be married for 59 years. She died in August. The couple raised three children.
Clothier worked at Boeing on rocket programs and, in his final 10 years, as a speechwriter for company President William Allen and then for his successor, CEO and board chairman T.A. Wilson.
Only after he retired in 1985 did he attend a reunion of Pearl Harbor veterans and reawaken his interest in the battle and the history of his ship, which was rebuilt and modernized at the Bremerton shipyard and returned to battle at Normandy, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Clothier and his wife traveled to Hawaii on the 50th anniversary of the attack, in 1991. He marched with USS Nevada survivors, carrying a banner that said, "The Ship That Wouldn't Die."
Clothier said he was unprepared for the large number of people who lined the sidewalks of the parade route and later sought him out to shake his hand and thank him for his service.
Next year will be the 70th anniversary, but Clothier said he will not likely attend.
"Us old guys take several pills a day. Traveling gets to be a hassle," he said. And it's also sad to be reminded of how many of his friends from the Nevada are now dead.
"There's just a few of us left," he said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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