PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — Ed Johann will always remember the sound of planes diving out of the sky to bomb U.S. battleships, the explosions and the screams of sailors. He still recalls the stench of burning oil and flesh.
The 86-year-old retired firefighter is due to return to Pearl Harbor Monday for the first time since World War II to attend a ceremony marking the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack.
"I really don't know how I'm going to handle it," said Johann, from his home in Oregon. "When I think about it, all I have is unpleasantness. I'm sure it's not like that now."
Johann was a teenage apprentice seaman on Dec. 7, 1941. He had enlisted in the Navy only five months earlier so his parents, who picked and packed tomatoes and other crops in California's San Fernando Valley, wouldn't have to support him.
He and two other sailors were waiting to ferry passengers on a small boat to and from the USS Solace, a hospital ship that was moored in Pearl Harbor, when they saw the Japanese planes.
They first thought they were U.S. aircraft conducting drills until they saw explosions and flames from the stricken ships.
Johann's motor launcher boat rushed to the USS Arizona, which was hit by several bombs, one of which struck her forward ammunition magazines and set off a massive explosion. Already fueled and manned when the attack began, their 30-foot boat was the first rescue vessel to arrive at the scene.
They found the water littered with people — some wounded, some dead, some unharmed. Many were covered in the leaking oil from the ships.
They loaded as many as they could and delivered them to the hospital ship before returning to the USS West Virginia for more.
"As we're pulling them out of the water, a lot of times the skin would come right off the arm," Johann said. "They would just be black with oil, except maybe you could see the white of their eyes."
Scene of panic
The planes kept coming. Dive-bombers plunged out of the sky, dropping bombs and strafing the water and ships with machine gun fire before roaring back up for another round. Torpedo bombers flew in level to drop their submersible weapons for underwater assaults.
The burning, sinking vessels at first lowered men into Johann's makeshift rescue boat. But some sailors started to panic and jump into their small ship, forcing it to pull away so it wouldn't sink too.
"Some of the sailors would be like in shock and some of 'em would be like going out of control, screaming and hollering," Johann said.
The next morning — after nervously worrying the Japanese planes would return — Johann's boat unloaded men from the Solace who failed to make it through the night and delivered them to land.
"We had them stacked like cordwood in our boat. The open end where the feet was sticking out was these big brown tags that said 'unknown, unknown,'" Johann said. The military hadn't adopted dog tags yet and many couldn't be identified.
More than 2,200 sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed.
"We didn't survive by any skill," Johann said of his boat. "It was just luck, pure luck. Because all we were concentrating on was trying to save people, and not save ourselves."
'I wanted to help people'
Johann served the rest of the war on the USS Wright, a seaplane tender. After 1945, he returned to California where he worked in sawmills before moving to Portland, Ore., where he spent 28 years as a firefighter. He retired to a beach cottage in Lincoln City and where he served on the city council, helping build hiking trails and campaigning against domestic violence.
Every Fourth of July, the U.S. Independence Day holiday, he goes to bed early to avoid the fireworks because they remind him of Pearl Harbor's explosions. Even so, the blasts keep him awake.
But the horrors he went through also led him to become a firefighter.
"I think I had it in my mind," Johann said, "I wanted to help people."
For years, Johann said he wouldn't go to the annual observance in Hawaii in honor of those killed in the attack. But now that he's 86, it seemed liked a good idea.
"If I'm ever going to do anything like that I'd better do it now," Johann said. His son, who lives on Maui, will accompany him.
Organizers expect between 40 and 50 survivors of the attack to come. Overall, some 2,000 people are expected to attend the ceremony on a pier overlooking the spot where the Arizona sank.
The bodies of more than 1,000 sailors and Marines are still on board, and small drops of oil continue to rise from the submerged battleship.
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