Saturday, December 06, 2014

"Lest We Forget..."

The loud roar of an aviation engine shattered the calm of Sunday morning's routines. Two ten year old boys, playing in the stillness, rushed outside to see the source.

Japanese aerial photo of first torpedo splashes and
first hit on USS West Virginia/Photo Credit: USN Archives
Tommy pointed to the sky as a line of twenty low-flying monoplanes lumbered past the roof of the two-story house, barely 50-feet in the air. The pilots' and gunners' faces were clearly visible as they flew past, cockpit canopies opened to allow the cool morning slipstream inside. Below each planes' belly was slung a long, metallic cylinder with wooden fins.

"Look, Ma, at the torpedo planes!" Tommy shouted back at the house.
"I know, dammit; they aren't ours!" his mother shouted back. "Get the hell inside!" she screamed.

An escort fighter roared overhead, spraying the house and yard with machine gun fire. Two rounds landed in an upstairs bedroom, where Tommy's older sister lay sleeping. Just a few hundred yards away, explosions began to rock the ground, thick, dark smoke stained the sky, and the buzz of warplanes filled the air. The boys scrambled back inside, and the family huddled in the house until the sounds ceased.

USS Arizona burns
Photo Credit: Naval Archives
It was December 7, 1941, and Tommy Gillette had just witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from the vantage of his front yard on the Naval Base. Gillette's father was a Navy Captain, responsible for managing all repairs and salvage at Pearl, a post he would retain until just prior to the Battle of Midway.

Recently de-classified information from both sides about the attack has revealed that while the United States was clearly surprised at Pearl Harbor, Japanese aggression was expected--and that the US Military had been instructed by President Franklin Roosevelt to allow Japan to draw first blood. They just didn’t think it would be on Oahu.

Pearl Harbor Survivor
Thomas W. Gillette
Photo: Brent Clanton
These revelations were the topic of a presentation by Thomas W. Gillette in ceremonies Saturday aboard the Battleship Texas commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Gillette says Roosevelt recognized the Japanese threat to America's interests in the Pacific as early as World War I, when he served as Under-secretary of the Navy. When FDR became President, he silently began to upgrade the US Naval Fleet by replacing older vessels with more modern warships.

Gillette says FDR anticipated Japanese aggression against the US Fleet in the Pacific, and also authorized the construction of new Navy drydock facilities at Pearl and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in the late 1930's. Those drydocks would prove crucial in repairing warships damaged at Pearl Harbor.

Capsized USS Utah
Photo Credit: Naval Archives
Gillette says as a teenager, he remembered watching workers at the Puget Sound yard rebuilding the U.S.S. Nevada, Tennessee, California and West Virginia in succession, battleships all sunk in the attack at Pearl.

The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor was a tactical win for Japan--but only partially so, as the US Navy’s ability to repair its warships escaped damage. Gillette says, “In retrospect, it was a strategic victory for our Allies,” he says. “It unified all Americans with fierce resolve to defeat the Axis powers.” 

USS Arizona Memorial
Photo Credit: Brent Clanton
"Pearl Harbor taught us the need to be prepared, and the folly of underestimating your enemies," Gillette said on Saturday. "We should never forget those lessons."

Tom Gillette served in the US Navy as a Ship Repair Officer from 1952-1955. He later went to work for Exxon, and was responsible for the salvage of the Exxon Valdez. Tom's father, Claude Gillette, achieved the rank of Rear Admiral. Tom donates his time to the First Texas Volunteers, giving guided tours aboard the Battleship Texas. You can usually find him in Boiler Room #3.

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