A veteran remembers Pearl Harbor
Seventy years ago, on Dec. 7, 1941, the American people were in shock and dismay.
That morning the Japanese Imperial Navy's airplanes had bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a sneak attack that left the country reeling and put America into what became World War II.
But despite the enormity of the events that day, today many people have forgotten what happened. In fact, many don't even know much about it.
In most American minds, the date of Sept. 11, 2001 is a date that will live in infamy much longer than that attack on the American military so long ago. Yet with the decade that has passed since that tragedy there are kids in junior high today that don't even recall it. Time passes quickly and memories of events that were experienced by a previous generation can be easily forgotten.
But for one local resident, the events of that sunny tropical December morning were all too real until the day he passed away, ironically just after a he had attended a commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the attack.
That's because Steven Milkovich was the only person from Carbon County to have actually witnessed the attack. In December 1941, he was a 17-year-old seaman who had joined the U.S. Navy the March before.
"I had little idea any of that was coming," said Milkovich during an interview in 2003 when the Sun Advocate did a Senior Focus profile on him. "When I got out of boot camp, they assigned me to the battleship USS Maryland in Bremerton, Wash. We then sailed to San Francisco, Calif. and provisioned the ship. From there we went to Long Beach, Calif. Then it was the long trip to Pearl Harbor."
When Milkovich arrived in Hawaii, he was assigned as a bow hook boy on an admiral's dinghy.
The Carbon County resident wore dress whites all the time as he and three other men shuttled the admiral between points around the harbor.
In connection with his military duties, he was actually assigned to two ships at the time of the attack - the Maryland and the battleship West Virginia.
The two ships were almost carbon copies of each other because they both came from the same class of battleships (Colorado class, named for the first ship built in the series) constructed in the late teens and early '20s of the last century.
In those were the years when battleships were considered the kings of the sea. But after that day in 1941, few would consider them that again. The aircraft carrier was the new ruler of the oceans, because of the range of its mobile strike force. A battleship could hurl a two ton shell 20 miles, but it could not strike forces over the horizon like an airplane could.
A few months later, at the Battle of Midway, the changing face of war appeared when the two nations' naval fleets would battle, yet no ships from the Japanese or the American forces would see each other. Only the planes of both countries fought that battle, a first in history.
On the night of Dec. 6, the majority of the United States Pacific Fleet was anchored in Pearl Harbor. Of nine battleships, eight were lined up two by two to protect the vessels from submarine attack. Unfortunately, no one thought an air attack could take place because the Japanese home islands were thousands of miles away. In the minds of most of the American military certainly any strike force that could do any damage would be spotted long before they reached the Hawaiian Islands. But American strategists were wrong. That force did attack, with almost complete surprise, just before 8 a.m. Hawaiian Standard Time.
"I had slept that night on the West Virginia and was just putting my hammock away when someone came running down the stairs and yelled 'They're bombing us'," recalled Milkovich. "When I went up and saw what was happening, I was scared to death."
He said no one was prepared for what was about to happen. When the anti-aircraft gunners uncovered their weapons on the ships to shoot back at the attacking planes, they had no ammunition to fire. When the gunners went to get the ammunition, the doors to the armories were locked up tight.
At the airfields on Oahu Island American aircraft were lined up much like the battleships, right next to each other. They were placed that way to avoid sabotage and for surveillance purposes. Unfortunately the groupings also made great targets.
When the bombing started, Milkovich got off the West Virginia and headed for his other assignment, the Maryland. It was while he was in transit that he saw the infamous bomb that went down the Arizona's main funnel explode the ship. The blasted lifted the 31,000 ton ship out of the water.
"Once I was on the Maryland, I watched as the Oklahoma rolled over in its berth," pointed out the Carbon County veteran.
A few American planes, mostly P-40s were able to get up into the air and take the fight to the attackers. They did manage to shoot down a few Japanese planes, but most were overwhelmed by the vast numbers of aircraft the Japanese had sent to devastate the American military presence on the island. At least one friently plane was also shot down by nervous American ground fire from gunners who didn't know the difference between American fighters and Japanese aircraft.
During the battle the U.S. Navy permanently or temporarily lost the use of eight battleships and 13 other various military vessels. The Navy and the U.S. Army lost nearly 200 aircraft and, worst of all, almost 3,000 American service men died in the attack. Over 2,000 of those that lost their lives were on a single ship, the Arizona. Many of their remains still lie in the sunken hull, over which a memorial was built a few years later.
The Japanese, however, had miscalculated a couple of things in their seemingly easy victory. They did not sink one American aircraft carrier, because the U.S. flattops were all out to sea at the time. They also underestimated the American public's will to fight a war on many, many fronts. The Japanese also failed to destroy the fuel systems in the harbor. They also forgot about another important support structure, the storage and ship repair facilities which would eventually return most of the ships that had been hit in the harbor to combat readiness.
Milkovich came away from Pearl Harbor fairly unscathed from the attack, with only a few scratches and some bumps and bruises. But while not wounded at Pearl Harbor, he did get hurt later in the war and to the day he passed away he still limped from the injury.
Milkovich remembered all the faces of people he knew who were lost in that first battle of World War II. At the time of the interview he had a difficult time speaking about some of his experiences, not because it was seemingly long ago, but because of the emotions involved in the entire ordeal.
It would be easy to say that Sept. 11 was a bigger disaster for the United States than the Pearl Harbor attack was, but things are always relative to the time one lives in. Pearl Harbor changed the face of America to the point that had it not happened the entire world may would have been a very different place. Certainly America would have been different without that rallying cry "Remember Pearl Harbor."
It was A day which will always live in infamy.