Pearl Harbor survivor recalls unexpected roar of planes that plunged U.S. into World War II

December 06, 2011|By DAN DEARTH |
  • Pearl Harbor survivor Tom Gilliam, of Halfway, was in his barracks when Japanese forces launched the surprise attack 70 years ago that brought the United States into World War II.
By Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

HALFWAY — Tom Gilliam was washing up in his Army barracks near Pearl Harbor when he heard the roar of aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941.

“It was around 8 in the morning,” the 91-year-old Gilliam said recently from his Halfway home. “I was supposed to go to the other side of the island to go swimming.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Gilliam said he ran outside to see what was happening. As a young enlisted man serving in the medical corps, he said he wasn’t trained to identify the round, bright-red emblems that were painted on the wings of the aircraft.

“I’d never seen a Jap plane before,” Gilliam said. “They were flying kind of low. They came right over my barracks. At that time, the first sergeant told us to go inside. They made us lay against the wall.”

The Japanese pilots didn’t fire, probably because “our barracks looked more like houses,” he said.

In the following moments, Gilliam, who was stationed at Fort Kamehameha to the south of Pearl Harbor, heard in the distance what he said sounded like “dynamite.”

“It seemed like it was over as soon as it started,” Gilliam said of the Japanese attack that a day later propelled the United States into World War II.

Gilliam said he worked in a dispensary before the attack, helping doctors treat soldiers who went on sick call. But on the morning of Dec. 7, the dispensary was converted into a first-aid station to treat the wounded.

“Just about the time it was over, they brought in some wounded soldiers — about eight of them I think ... It was like they were in a state of shock. Their breathing was irregular,” Gilliam said. “We were busy there for a while. The one guy had been shot in the head. You picked up his hair and his skull came up.”

Gilliam said he thought about his brother, Earl, who was stationed at an air base called Bellows Field to the east of Pearl Harbor.

Because Bellows Field was in the process of being built, the soldiers who were stationed there didn’t have barracks, Tom Gilliam said. They slept in tents, where some of the men sought cover when Japanese planes started to strafe their targets on the ground.

Gilliam said Earl Gilliam and his tent mate dove under their cots. Earl Gilliam came out unscathed, but his friend was killed.

The brothers later sent word to their mother to let her know they were all right. A portion of that correspondence was printed in The (Hagerstown) Daily Mail on Dec. 30, 1941.

“Earl and myself are OK,” the newspaper article said. “I guess you know by this time it has been kind of warm here for the past few days.”

Gilliam said he quit school after sixth grade to pick green beans and work other jobs to earn money for his family during the Great Depression. At that time, the family often moved around Hagerstown.

“I don’t know if we couldn’t pay the rent or what,” he said. “There were nine kids in my family. It was rough.”

Gilliam said he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps when he was 16. He said he earned $30 a month helping to build roads in Frederick County, Md.

“I sent $25 a month to my family,” he said.

When Gilliam was 18, he got a job stocking shelves at the A&P grocery store on North Potomac Street in Hagerstown. In 1940, he went to the military recruiting station on the second floor of the post office building on West Franklin Street and joined the Army.

Gilliam said he entered basic training at Fort Slocum, N.Y., and after two short weeks of “learning nothing,” embarked on a journey by sea to Fort Kamehameha, Hawaii.

“I loved it. It was beautiful,” he said. “There was no snow. But you got tired of it after awhile. You didn’t have the change of seasons.”

Gilliam said he adjusted to military life and sometimes visited Honolulu with his Army buddies.

Despite the Japanese military’s ongoing conquests in Asia at the time, Gilliam said the U.S. soldiers had no idea Pearl Harbor was a target.

Altogether, 2,390 Americans lost their lives in the attack, according to The Associated Press. Twelve ships sank or were beached, and nine were damaged. The U.S. lost 164 aircraft. On the Japanese side, 64 people died, five ships sank and 29 planes were destroyed.

Gilliam said several hours after the attack ended, the men in his unit were moved out of the dispensary to 155 mm howitzer emplacements along the coast.

“They didn’t tell us anything,” he said.

None of the men were scared, Gilliam said. Instead, they were eager to exact revenge on the Japanese.

Gilliam said he stayed in Hawaii for the remainder of the war and continued to work in the medical corps. He was discharged in October 1945 and returned to Maryland, where he met his wife, Helen, a short time later. They have been married for 64 years.

He said he worked several jobs and eventually retired from Mack Trucks.

Gilliam returned to Hawaii in 1977, and again in 1991 for the 50th anniversary of the attack. He said the islands have changed quite a bit since he first arrived there so many decades ago.

There was a time when Gilliam regularly attended the reunions of his old Army unit, but those meetings waned as the men died or grew too old to travel. The youngest of the survivors are in their late 80s.

“There’s only three of us left that I know of,” Gilliam said. “Most of them are gone. I’m glad I’m still here.”

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