What started as a tranquil day in paradise on Dec. 7, 1941, suddenly turned into a devastating surprise attack that changed the course of world history, launching America into a war it had tried for years to avoid — but steeling American resolve to fight until the final victory.
There are fewer and fewer people who were alive when the attack took place, much less those who were actually there when it occurred.
I was fortunate to interview J.C. Alston of Troy, Texas, when I worked as a reporter for the Temple Daily Telegram. J.C. was an 18-year-old sailor stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, aboard the USS California when Japanese bombs and torpedoes began falling and sowing death and destruction.
Alston is now 96 years old and is still able to drive. He was a young man of just 91 when I talked to him in 2014. He is a remarkably upbeat, positive man.
He said that on that morning in 1941, he was just about to have breakfast, and he joked that the Japanese still owed him that breakfast that he missed.
“I hadn’t gotten down to eat when the attack happened,” Alston said. “They still owe me a breakfast. Reckon I’ll ever collect it?”
Sadly, on that fateful morning, many would lose much more than a meal — they would lose their lives or suffer various degrees of injuries. J.C. Alston was one of the lucky ones.
He recalls being ordered to abandon ship, and frantically trying to reach safety with bombs, bullets and fiery oil slicks all posing great danger.
Alston not only survived that ordeal, he was one of the sailors who was present aboard a ship in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered 45 months later.
On weekdays, the sailors left the harbor and fired the ship’s big guns at targets that were set up and would enjoy some rest and relaxation, known in the Navy as “liberty,” over the weekend.
The USS California returned to port and Battleship Row on Thursday, Dec. 4, three days before the attack.
The Japanese were eager to sink America’s aircraft carriers, but those ships were absent from Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack.
“I watched the Lexington pull out when I was on my 4 to 8 a.m. watch a couple days before the attack,” Alston said.
The California was docked further back from other American battleships, so the sailors aboard the California watched as other ships were hit first.
Much of the ammunition was locked up for safekeeping, and boxes had to be broken open so sailors could man antiaircraft guns, Alston said.
“There was a ship next to us that was filled with high-octane aviation fuel, but it was docked at an angle, so it didn’t get hit,” Alston said.
“If it had been hit, a lot of sailors would have been burned when we abandoned ship, I’m telling you.”
The Japanese had planned their attack well, Alston said, noting that they placed wooden fins on torpedoes because the harbor was shallow.
“They’d been planning it for a long time,” he said. “For us, it was a big surprise. Nobody was expecting it.”
Alston was on the main deck when the first wave of Japanese planes came in.
“They yelled at us to abandon ship before I could get to my battle station, which was a turret with a 14-inch gun,” he said.
The men returned to the ship, which sank in the mud instead of rolling over, before being ordered to abandon ship a second time, he said.
The men swam to Ford Island in the center of Pearl Harbor.
Some of the ships were damaged much more severely.
The California would eventually be repaired and return to service.
“We had about 1,600 on board, and 102 of us got killed,” Alston said. “The rest of us got ashore.”
Some of the men were still in Honolulu enjoying weekend liberty when the attack took place, Alston said.
There was no place for the men to seek cover, he said.
“When we got to the island, they mustered us to get a count of how many survived,” Alston said. “There wasn’t any shelter. They bombed the hospital, even though it had a big red cross on it. That didn’t bother them.”
Survivors took turns manning antiaircraft guns but didn’t have any place to stay.
After the attack, Alston found shelter temporarily aboard another battleship, the USS Maryland.
“We didn’t get on board until after the attack, but we had a place to stay,” he said.
The Navy notified Alston’s family that he survived the attack, although he had missed the first muster and originally was listed as missing in action.
He was aboard the USS West Virginia at the end of the war, seeing action at Iwo Jima, where he “watched the flag being raised twice,” and Okinawa.
“We lost 48 ships at Okinawa, and I forgot how many were damaged,” Alston said.
The West Virginia, with Alston aboard, eventually sailed into Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender, after atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Those two bombs stopped it, or else a lot more people would have died,” Alston said.
The Japanese signed the surrender treaty on Sept. 2, 1945.
“It was unreal,” Alston said. “A lot of people had been praying for that day, and it finally came. We had all our carriers out to sea in case they tried to pull something.”
Alston said he was fortunate to have survived the beginning of America’s entry into the war and blessed to be there for the end of it.
“It was really something to have been there for the beginning of the war (at Pearl Harbor) and the end of the war (in Tokyo Bay),” he said. “I’m glad to have lived through it, because so many did not.”
Jeff Osborne is the editor of The Progress. A Texan since 1973, he has worked for Texas newspapers for 25 years.