72 years after Pearl Harbor, Bellingham survivor remembers the attack

"We grew up in a hurry that day," says Jim Stansell

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 7, 2013 

On this day 72 years ago, a terrified Jim Stansell grew up fast amid the chaos of gunfire, explosions, black smoke and dying men.

He started that Dec. 7, 1941, morning as a care-free kid on Oahu, Hawaii, with its warm weather, sandy beaches and palm trees. He ended the day after the attack on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor thinking: "This is war? This is what we're going to have to do? Our island paradise is gone. It will never be the same again."

The U.S. Navy man was 18 years old and serving on the destroyer USS Hull at Pearl Harbor.

"We were scared. Boy, I'll tell you, we grew up in a hurry that day," Stansell said of the attack that propelled the United States into World War II.

One day earlier this week, a now 90-year-old Stansell sat in his room at Mt. Baker Care Center in Bellingham, where he was undergoing rehabilitation for a broken hip. Near Stansell was a framed photo of him and his late wife Arlene, and a copy of his recently self-published autobiography, "That Is How It Was."

The president of the North Cascades Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors' Association - a dwindling group as the years go by and the members age and die - usually travels to a ceremony at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to honor survivors and the 2,335 U.S. servicemen and 68 civilians who were killed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

But not this year. His injury kept Stansell in Bellingham.

BACK TO PEARL HARBOR

There had been "scuttlebutt" about war in those days, Stansell recalled. Everyone thought it was inevitable, but they were all a bunch of kids and didn't think much of it.

"We hadn't really started to deal with realities yet. We were on an island paradise, the first time away from home. We just thought we were in heaven," Stansell said of those days when he was young and had left behind his impoverished roots in Butte, Mont.

Dec. 7, 1941, was a sunny Sunday. A beautiful morning, as usual, Stansell recalled.

He was in the compartment of the USS Hull, getting ready to go ashore. It was 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time. Then someone came down and said the Japanese were bombing them.

Stansell ran topside. The first thing he saw was a Japanese airplane pulling out of a dive over the Hull after coming from the Ford Island Naval Air Station in the middle of Pearl Harbor.

"It seemed like he was right there," Stansell said, holding his hands near his face to demonstrate. "I could see the pilot in there."

The Japanese pilot strafed the Hull - anchored in a line of destroyers just off the north end of the airstrip on Ford Island - as he flew by.

Another Japanese plane flying over the Hull dropped three bombs, one of which hit under the destroyer's stern and damaged its rudder.

The crew on the Hull could do little to defend the ship during the two waves of the Japanese attack. Their ship was undergoing repairs, which included overhauling the engine rooms. That meant the Hull was hooked into its tender, the USS Dobbin, for maintenance and depended on the Dobbin for electricity, air and water.

When the attacks started, the Hull's crew was able to get off just a few shots with the five-inch guns mounted on the destroyer before the Dobbin cut the power and air needed to run those guns.

That left them with just four .50-caliber machine guns - two forward on the ship on each side and two aft. Stansell, who was a sight setter for one of the five-inch guns, didn't have one of those machine guns in hand.

Stansell and most of the crew were essentially helpless.

"During the whole attack, both waves, we were sitting ducks. I didn't have anything to shoot with," he said. "All we could do was watch what was happening. I pretty much saw everything that was happening."

Stansell saw explosions everywhere. He was looking at the battleship USS Utah when it capsized after being struck by two torpedoes; 64 of its men died. He saw the USS Arizona settle back into the water after an explosion raised the battleship; it sank and 1,177 men on board died.

He saw a destroyer in the floating dry dock at Ford Island explode. Planes were flying everywhere and so was anti-aircraft shrapnel, and he could see hangars on fire and the remains of twisted aircraft.

They rescued two sailors who were able to escape from the capsized Oklahoma and make their way from the battleship to the Hull.

"I was scared goddamned near to death. We all were. It was horrifying, honest, at least to me. When the actual planes were there we weren't thinking anything, hoped to hell we didn't get hit. But between the waves and afterwards, I think the thought came to me, 'This is war?' "

The Hull's crew would escape without any casualties, and the destroyer had little damage because the Japanese were after U.S. aircraft and larger battleships, Stansell said, adding that the Japanese thought the smaller destroyers were inconsequential.

"They really weren't interested in the destroyers. They were after the big ships. They were all obsolete and they couldn't do anything unless we were with them. They made a mistake," he said.

After the attack, an uninjured Stansell and the Hull shipped out, taking part in Navy raids on islands throughout the South Pacific. He took part in battles at Guadalcanal and Saipan.

He has returned to Pearl Harbor twice since then- once in 1993 with Arlene and again in 2011 for the 70th anniversary commemoration.

All these decades later, Stansell remembers finally being able to get underway on the Hull and looking back at Pearl Harbor to the black smoke and burning ships and the fires.

"It was terrible. But right over that smoke was the most beautiful rainbow you ever saw."

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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