From left: Walter Hemmelberg, Jim Downic, Leonard Browning
Pearl Harbor is a name most recognize from the history books, but for three Springs men, the event carries far more weight.
Walter Himmelberg, Jim Downic and Leonard Browning are all Pearl Harbor survivors. With the 70-year anniversary looming, the three veterans reunited Friday at Downic's home, where they shared memories with 11 News of what it was like to live through the "day of infamy" that thrust the United States into World War II.
Himmelberg told 11 News he and his comrades were so green at the time of the attack--all being draftees--that some thought the plane they saw coming in was an American one.
"About five minutes until 8 the Japanese planes came over, and some of the fellas waved to the pilots...we didn't know what the red on the side of the plane was!"
"Then a lieutenant came running over and said ''we're at war, we're at war.' Some of the fellas started laughing, we all thought it was a joke," Himmelberg recalled.
He soon found himself in the thick of the action when his barracks came under attack.
"The planes came down with its machine guns going!"
For a young draftee, even in the moment it was hard to wrap his head around what was happening--he said that even as he and the men around him were shooting at the planes, they still couldn't believe what they were doing.
"This lieutenant and a sergeant both got the Silver Star because they don't know which one killed the pilot. All of us got the Purple Heart...we were all wounded that day. I still wear a brace."
Chuckling, Himmelberg told 11 News that going through an event Pearl Harbor was one sure way to "get a thrill in your life!"
Browning saw Pearl Harbor from a different angle—literally. He had been traveling on a cargo ship in the weeks before the attack, and had returned to the Hawaiian coast late at night on December 6.
“They didn’t like to take the vessels up the channel into Pearl Harbor, so we steamed around a place near the entrance,” Browning said.
He said a shipman spotted something the morning of December 7. It was a ship on patrol, firing at a two-man Japanese submarine.
“It (the submarine) wasn’t sturdily built and went down…wasn’t recovered until very recently.
“I was still asleep when the Ward sunk the sub…I was awaken and ran up on watch. We were not the subject of the attack, the ships in the harbor were. We were machine gunned a couple of times, but they had to come down to aim at us and get back up, so we were only hit a few times. One was right in front of my radio shack,” Browning said. Browning was a radioman on the cargo ship.
"All I could see was the smoke and the noise coming from Pearl Harbor," he added.
Downic had been in the Navy for nine years at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He said he knew there would be a war during his time in the service, but was still caught off guard when he found himself face to face with enemy combatants.
“One plane banked low so that the machine gun could get a shot at where I was standing, but it didn’t make quite far enough. So the war became pretty personal,” Downic said.
He suggested that modern technology might have prevented the ambush.
“It’s hard for this generation to know what it’s like not to have satellite…all you knew was what you saw in front of you. You couldn’t tell that they were Japanese planes until you saw the red circle.”
Downic played down the notion that he and his peers were "the greatest generation."
"I don't consider that we're heroes...we were under fire for three hours. We have heroes in Afghanistan who are at risk everyday."
The 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor is Wednesday, Dec. 7. The 70th anniversary of America's entry into World War II is the following day.
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