“Everything stopped when they said Pearl Harbor was bombed,” said Frank Singletary, former Navy sailor.
The tale of Pearl Harbor is eternally etched in the minds of many Americans. Who doesn’t know that hundreds of Japanese fighter planes swept into Hawaii on a quiet Sunday morning? The attack killed more than 2,300 American soldiers and sailors, destroying almost 20 naval vessels and nearly 200 airplanes.
Dec. 7, 2012, marks the 71st anniversary of the 1941 bombing that triggered the United States’ delayed entrance into World War II.
Life changed immensely for Americans. The war swept young soldiers away, some to the western U.S. tropics of Hawaii.
Men such as Benjamin Franklin Singletary of Selbyville and Harold “Hal” Barber of Ocean View were young when American radios reported the air strike, but both volunteered to serve at the age of 17.
“Something had drastically happened. I remember my father talking about ‘President Roosevelt went on the air,’ but other than that…” Barber said, he does not remember the actual announcement.
“During the time, everything stopped when they said Pearl Harbor was bombed. Everything went military,” Singletary said. “We’re not fighting those wars now.”
Born in Middlesex, N.C., Singletary said he was one of perhaps 10 African-Americans serving with 260 whites on the destroyer the U.S.S. Bush (DD 529). Today, he has a Purple Heart for having been wounded in service.
“They weren’t taking black folks,” Singletary said. “I was just lucky enough to get the Navy.”
The Army and Marines would accept African-Americans, but the Navy typically did not. They rejected his initial application in 1944 but soon called him back for two years of service.
Singletary served as a mess boy when the ship departed California, stopped briefly in Pearl Harbor and continued for Asia. Officially ranked as a steward first class, Singletary might shine officers’ shoes or clean uniforms. But he had more serious duties when the U.S.S. Bush arrived in Okinawa.
“During wartime, in war zone, we had battle stations,” said Singletary, so he took his place in the artillery magazine.
He was part of the first American invasion of Okinawa, Japan, where the ship was bombed and destroyed. Many Americans died in the less-than-successful bombardment. A second task force would finish the job a few months later.
Singletary was injured, later having shrapnel removed from his legs and chest. He recalled being removed from the ship at 4 a.m.
“The Japanese didn’t do no fighting in the daytime,” he said, remembering action in the evening and nighttime.
Passing through Pearl Harbor en route to the Philippines in 1944, Singletary recalled, some of the area had been rebuilt, but “they hadn’t fixed everything up like it was.” Sailors with extra time or money might go onshore and stay at a hotel.
“Ain’t nothing there but servicemen, Navy men,” Singletary recalled.
He went home to his wife in North Carolina after an honorable discharge in 1946. They moved to Delaware, where he would take a job with H&H Poultry, now Mountaire Farms.
False alarm on the island
Harold “Hal” Barber saw Pearl Harbor transform over the years. First arriving in 1944, Barber was a young Navy deckhand who experienced fear similar to the original attack as warning came of a new attack. Air raid sirens began echoing across land and sea, much to everyone’s horror, he recalled.
“Being on a taker with gasoline — we were scared that it wasn’t just a false alarm. We didn’t know what to do,” Barber said.
The warnings turned out to be a false alarm, and Barber stuck with the Navy for another 20 years.
In the 1950s, he returned to Pearl Harbor en route to the Korean War. This time, his family and he lived on the island.
“Where I was stationed, my quarters were 1,000 yards from the Arizona. It had no platform,” said Barber of the sunken ship and its honored dead. “It was still just the stacks showing above the water. Later years, they ended up making the visitors’ platform.”
Soldiers would sometimes take small boats out to visit the site, but “there wasn’t any organized effort to have people go out and look at it, because the only thing you could see was the stack, because the rest was below,” Barber recalled.
The U.S.S. Arizona Memorial would not be dedicated until 1962. Visiting Pearl Harbor in the 1980s, Barber finally saw the full monument.
“It was wonderful,” Barber said. “You just have to do it. Something draws you to the memorial. … When you went, you could realize what had taken place and visualize it.”
Barber retired in 1964 as a senior chief and retired to South Bethany. He went on to serve as mayor of South Bethany, past commander of Ocean View VFW Post 7234 and an active firefighter and fire policeman.
But World War II was not legendary until long afterward, according to Singletary. Perhaps war somehow becomes bigger than life as it morphs into history.
“I didn’t pay attention to it. Life was life,” said Singletary. “As I got older, it’s [become] more than that.”
Ultimately, firsthand accounts of Pearl Harbor and World War II are disappearing with those who lived through that time, but everyone has a story to tell, and those found locally offer an extra dimension to those who take the time to listen. While some memories fade, the attack that stopped the U.S. in its tracks and set a course for World War II is firmly engraved as part of the nation’s story.