WASHINGTON — The last survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack are dying, but their voices and stories aren’t disappearing.
About two dozen audiotaped interviews with the oldest Pearl Harbor veterans have been recently donated to the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project in Washington and will be made available to the public.
The oral history interviews were conducted by documentary filmmakers for the History channel. They sought the material to prepare special programming to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the attack that occurred Dec. 7, 1941.
The attack drew the United States into World War II and had a profound effect on Hawaii, which found itself on the front lines of a global conflagration.
Some snippets from these interviews will be included in the History channel documentaries being aired this week, “Pearl Harbor: The Truth” and “Pearl Harbor: The Last Word,” but a lot of rich material remains.
Raymond Albert Brittain was the subject of one Veterans History Project interview. He was a 20-year-old anti-aircraft specialist on the USS Tennessee that Sunday morning. He recalled that he had just woken up and was standing on the deck of the battleship with a buddy when they noticed a plume of smoke billowing up from the shore nearby.
“Oh there’s that crazy Army practicing dive-bombing,” Brittain’s friend said with a knowing shrug. Then they saw the planes, with the distinctive red circles emblazoned on the wings. “Hell, Ray, those are Japanese planes,” his friend said.
“We would love more participation from Hawaii’s veterans who served for the U.S.” — Monica Mohindra, Veterans History Project
Brittain recalled that he was completely dumbfounded.
“For weeks we’d been practicing for something like this, but the word Japanese had never been said to us,” he said. They had assumed the enemy was in Europe.
Brittain raced through the ship yelling for people to get to their battle stations. Some of his crewmates laughed, thinking he was joking. As the realization struck, they rushed to the defense of the ship. Brittain manned a 5-inch gun battery as torpedoes exploded into the ships around him.
He watched as the USS Oklahoma rolled over. He saw the West Virginia sink. Thick oil-laden smoke made it almost impossible to breathe. The day passed in a horrible haze, Brittain said.
When the series of attacks ended, Brittain discovered his ankle was broken and the flesh on his foot and leg had been burned black. He went to the sick bay, but there were so many wounded and dying sailors that the doctor handed him a bandage and some tape, and told him to bind his foot himself. The doctor gave him a hypodermic needle filled with morphine and showed him how to inject himself.
“I taped it then I went back to work, Brittain said.
In the following days, Brittain was assigned the duty of pulling charred corpses from the water, using ropes to grapple the bodies and pull them into a rowboat. As he described those days, his voice quavered and he began crying.
“I try to forget things like that,” he told the interviewer. “You can’t. … After 60 years, it’s still there. I still think of it.”
Brittain survived the war, married his high school sweetheart and became a county sheriff. He died last year at age 94 in Sheridan, Wyoming.
Congress created the Veterans History Project in 2000 to boost understanding and awareness of the realities of war. The archive contains remembrances of veterans of conflicts since World War I. But although there are some 170,000 veterans in Hawaii, it contains very few stories from the 50th state.
“We would love more participation from Hawaii’s veterans who served for the U.S.,” said Monica Mohindra, head of program coordination and communication for the project.
She said that the project is accepting about 90 to 100 oral history submissions from American veterans each week and now has a total inventory of about 101,000.
“Currently we only have about 95 from those who list Hawaii as their state of residence,” she said. “We really need more to tell the full story of Hawaii service.”
It is not necessary for the interviews to be professionally conducted. Mohindra said they accept oral histories done by friends and family members, and that the interviews should last at least 30 minutes. More information is available on the Veterans History Project website at the Library of Congress.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.