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On Pearl Harbor day, local survivors of the attack recall the Day of Infamy

The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii,  Dec. 7, 1941
The battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941
Published Dec. 7, 2014

At first they thought it was a drill. Maybe the local Navy aviators were doing some bombing practice. Strange that it was happening on a Sunday morning, though.

In his bunk aboard the battleship USS Nevada in Pearl Harbor, an 18-year-old sailor named Tom Collins was working on a macrame belt when he heard machine gun fire. He poked his head out a porthole and saw a plane shoot by with a rising sun painted on its wing.

"Uh-oh," he said.

Onshore, 9-year-old George Dilley walked out his front door after breakfast, just as a woman in a nightgown ran down the street screaming, "The Japs are bombing us." The son of a Navy cryptographer, he lived in officers' quarters overlooking what was known as Battleship Row.

Seventy-three years ago today, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor killed nearly 2,400 Americans, wounded nearly 1,200 and plunged the United States into World War II.

Collins and Dilley, today a couple of retired grandfathers in Pinellas County, saw it happen. Of the tens of thousands who survived what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called "a date which will live in infamy," some 2,000 to 2,500 servicemen remain alive, their numbers dwindling.

Collins, a 91-year-old engineer who retired in Clearwater, and Dilley, an 82-year-old retired Marine who settled in Seminole, have scrapbooks of black-and-white photos and dark memories of Dec. 7, 1941.

Enemy planes were dropping torpedoes as Collins sprinted to his battle station, a 14-inch gun turret. "Machine gun bullets were tearing up the deck," he recalled.

At his battle station, there was nothing he could do. Since it was peacetime, regulations required the ammunition to be locked up. The ship caught fire, so he was dispatched to a bucket brigade to help douse the flames. Then he was sent to help a chief warrant officer cut away the massive mooring lines with fire axes so the Nevada could get under way.

Another sailor spotted a bomb dropping from the sky. Collins dove behind a steel bulkhead as an explosion tore through the deck. He looked up to see a hole where he'd been standing. The chief warrant officer was gone.

"We took five bombs and a torpedo. The bomb flash burns you," he said. "The worst thing is, you'd see a guy who'd be running around crying and his face and arms would be black and his skin would be peeling off. You couldn't do anything for him."

At his home just outside the base, Dilley watched a Japanese Zero fighter plane fly down his street about 200 feet up. He could see the pilot in the cockpit.

His father, a Navy intelligence officer, jumped on George's bike and told the family to stand by in case they needed to evacuate. They wouldn't see him again for four days.

Inside the house, his mother threw together a mini-bomb shelter of sorts with pieces of furniture shoved against the dining room table. But her 9-year-old son was too excited to hunker down there.

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"At my age, I wasn't really frightened," Dilley recalled. "My parents were."

The boy went outside to watch dogfights and the battleships burning in the harbor. He and a neighborhood friend collected shell fragments and shrapnel in buckets. There was continuous noise and smoke.

"We were looking right at the (USS) Arizona when it blew up," he said. "The bombs cut the ship in half and it sank almost instantly, like somebody pounded it into the water."

That explosion shook Collins' ship, which was moored right behind the Arizona. The Nevada's crew hacked at the mooring lines until the ship could finally move.

As it steamed through the harbor, it passed sailors who were down in the water screaming, their bodies coated with thick oil that had oozed from the damaged battleships. Again, nothing could be done for them.

Still on fire and riddled with holes, the Nevada was ordered to run aground before it could sink and block the harbor's entrance. The next day, its survivors took their bunks off their racks and used them as stretchers to remove the stiffened corpses of their fellow crewmen.

After Pearl Harbor, everything was different. For the two local survivors, life would never be the same. When Dilley came of age, the Navy brat joined the Marines and served in Korea and Vietnam.

Collins' war was just beginning. He would go on to Midway and Peleliu and Iwo Jima, battlezones in World War II's Pacific campaign.

"The day after they bombed us at Pearl, the old Nevada wasn't going anywhere," Collins said. "So they called the crew on the dock and asked if anybody would volunteer to go on one of the ships that didn't get hit.

"Naturally, I held up my hand."


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