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Pearl Harbor vet from Williamsport says attack was turning point

66 years ago, Werth's anti-aircraft gun crew downed five Japanese planes

66 years ago, Werth's anti-aircraft gun crew downed five Japanese planes

December 07, 2007|By HEATHER KEELS

WILLIAMSPORT - As war stories go, Maury Werth has the makings of one of the best.

On Dec. 7, 1941, his Navy ship, the USS Raleigh, was the first to be struck by a Japanese torpedo in Pearl Harbor, and he was on the anti-aircraft gun crew that helped shoot down five Japanese planes.

But to hear him tell it, the day that would live in infamy was just an inevitable event, and he just happened to be there.

Werth, 90, of Williamsport, speaks with awe of the carefully coordinated Japanese attack and admiration for the level-headedness of his commander, who kept the Raleigh from capsizing as it took on 4,000 tons of water by ordering all topside weight thrown overboard.

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He sees the attack as a historical turning point that ignited Americans' feelings about World War II and shifted the United States into position as the leader of the world.

But when it comes to his own actions, his memories are of dogged labor, not glamor or fury.

"When you're in a fight, it's shoot the plane down," he said. "When it's over, you patch your ship up and get it ready. Night and day, all you do is what you've got to do. You get no sleep and you get it done."

Werth, who later experienced close-range land combat during the Vietnam War, said Naval warfare is impassive and methodical by contrast.

"I'm not shooting that guy, I'm knocking his airplane down," Werth said.

Maybe that's why, when Werth has gotten together with other veterans at ceremonies and ships' reunions, the attack is not the primary topic of conversation.

"We never exchange stories about the war, ever," Werth said. "What we like to do is talk about the funny things that happened - the time we put one over on the captain, how we smuggled liquor aboard without anyone knowing."

Believe it or not, Pearl Harbor isn't even the most memorable event in Werth's life. It's overshadowed, he said, by the three years he spent in Brazil as a child, when his father was sent there on business for General Electric.

As a steam ship carried his family 1,000 miles through the jungle on the Amazon River, he saw alligators by the hundreds. When the ship blew its whistle, a thousand brightly colored birds rose into the sky like a cloud.

"It was a wonderful thing for a boy to see," Werth said.

When the ship stopped at villages along the way, he came across real shrunken heads.

"I could have bought one for $12.50, but my mother wouldn't let me," he said.

It's this, not the attack on Pearl Harbor, that he remembers most vividly.

"The other stuff was all hard work and no sleep," he said.

Even Thursday, when he spoke to his younger brother, George, who lives in Washington D.C., the brothers' conversation about Pearl Harbor was focused on the event's impact on others.

George, who was still a child in 1941, said he was trying to tune the radio to a "Lone Ranger" program the day of the attack when his mother told him to stop so she could hear a news report.

"He said our mother sat down and turned white," Werth said.

It was people like her, left at home, who felt the greatest strain during World War II, Werth said, because they never knew what was happening. Even a letter from a son or husband was only reassurance he had been alive two weeks ago, he said.

That's why Werth was in no hurry to get married before the war. Years later, however, he did leave a wife and two children behind when he called off his retirement and signed up to serve in Vietnam, a decision his wife encouraged, despite the stress and worry it would mean for her.

"These are what real heroes are," Werth said, "People like my mother and like that lady."

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