Survivor recounts morning of Japanese attack

By Charles Ratliff

Arizona Daily Wildcat

On a certain Sunday morning in December, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, catching members of America's armed forces asleep in their bunks or in town on liberty.

Or so the historians say.

John D. Harris, of Avinger, Texas, was aboard the U.S.S. Arizona that fateful morning and said liberty for his ship's sailors ended at 1 a.m. every night during their stay in port.

"So, most of us were aboard," he said, discounting the notion that the surprise attack caught America's sailors asleep.

The 75-year-old Harris was in Tucson to attend the annual U.S.S. Arizona Memorial Service held on the University of Arizona Mall yesterday. He said he is one of 343 men who made it off the Arizona when it was sunk, taking 1,177 sailors and marines to their deaths.

On the morning of the attack, Harris, then seaman first class, said he was up for morning colors. His friend, Buddy McLane, pulled duty on the quarterdeck and was reading a newspaper while waiting for colors.

"Colors" refers to the daily ceremony of raising the American flag at sunrise and lowering it at sunset. On board ship, when colors is sounded, everything comes to a standstill.

Harris said when the attack started, he heard booming sounds from the mouth of the harbor. When the airplanes appeared overhead, colors had begun.

He said the band and color guard continued and everyone waited out the three-minute ceremony.

Right after colors they sounded general quarters.

"My friend was killed," Harris said. "I went on to my battle station."

His station, he said, was on the fifth deck below the number four turret in the powder handling room.

An explosion knocked out power to their area 35 feet below the water line. For a moment, he said everyone seemed lost in the confusion.

"We decided we needed to get out of there," Harris said.

He said he and several crew members made their way to the center of the ship. He said toxic gases began seeping into the lower compartments and the men stuffed pieces of their uniforms into portholes and cracks in doors.

They made their way up through the central columns and out onto the main deck.

"By that time the bow was down and she was sinking fast," Harris said.

They went ahead and waded into the oil-encrusted harbor waters. After they got into the water, they caught a boat headed for Ford Island and watched the rest of the attack from a bunker.

The next morning Harris said he found himself on a destroyer tender, then transferred to a destroyer to serve out the rest of the war.

Harris retired in 1960 as a Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest rank for an enlisted person.

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