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Pearl Harbor Barsell remembers

Walter Barsell of Wahoo recalls what he heard and saw during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Barsell was serving in the U.S. Navy at the time. He died Monday at age 97.

WAHOO -- Walter Barsell closes his eyes as he remembers.

The low-flying enemy planes. The looks on the pilots’ faces. The loud explosions, the fires, the calls for help.

The smells that changed from tropical flowers to burning fuel.

Sitting in a room at South Haven Retirement Home, the Wahoo man can’t believe 75 years have passed since that day — Dec. 7, 1941.

Now almost 96, he recalls clearly what happened when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor.

A Nebraskan who ended up on the island of Oahu, Barsell would learn much from that time.

“My eyes were opened up to the whole world,” he said. “It isn’t all safe and ice cream and cookies.”

Originally from Omaha, he graduated from Benson High School in the winter of 1939.

“There wasn’t much work around, so I joined the regular Navy for six years to see the world,” Barsell said.

He was assigned as an electronic technician and radio operator to a heavy cruiser, the USS Astoria. He had some good buddies on that ship, but after two years he asked for shore duty due to seasickness.

He was sent to the naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Barsell was just days away from his 21st birthday when the planes attacked.

It was a Sunday, shortly before 8 a.m., and he was one of about 40 men in a receiving station barracks.

“I was sitting on my bunk, writing a letter home to my parents,” he said.

He heard a terrific commotion, and he and other sailors ran to the south window of the two-story building and looked down onto Pearl Harbor. They saw the low-flying enemy planes.

The planes flew so low the men in the barracks could see the red circle emblems on the aircraft — and the pilots’ faces.

“You could have hit them with a baseball if you’d had one,” Barsell said.

Torpedoes hit the ships, and the men heard the explosions. They saw the fires and black smoke billowing into the sky.

Soon, they went to an east window and saw Hickam Field, where American planes were lined up.

“They were sitting ducks,” Barsell said.

They saw a panoramic scene of fire, destruction and explosions — on the airfield and at Ford Island where the battleships were stationed.

Suddenly over an intercom, a voice told the men to get out of the barracks, go across the nearby highway and scatter.

“We were told to leave, because we had no guns to fight with,” Barsell said. “The guns were locked in a locker, and the sailor who had the keys was ashore.

“We went across the highway into a pineapple field. We could look down and see the whole panorama of the whole attack and from that vantage point we could look down on the harbor and see all the action.”

The men were stunned.

“We had no advance warning,” Barsell said. “They just appeared out of the sky.”

After about an hour, some Flying Fortresses came over and the men cheered.

“We thought the tide would turn, but they didn’t have any ammunition,” Barsell said. “They were being transported to the Hawaiian Islands for duty and were not prepared to fight. We cheered and then they disappeared. They went to the other side of the island and landed.”

After another 30 minutes or so, the men were called back to the docks to clear away rubbish so emergency vehicles could reach the wounded.

Barsell said he pulled body parts out of the oil-soaked water and put them on the dock. He heard people hollering, giving orders or calling for help.

“Nobody was really in charge,” he said. “We just did what we saw needed to be done.”

He was sent to a ship that was tied up at the dock. There was no electricity, so the men used chain hoists to pass ammunition topside so a few guns could be shot.

“From action like that a song was made called, ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition’ and we’ll all stay free,” he said.

Barsell could relate.

Some American ships with active guns were able to shoot at the enemy planes, which came in waves, he said.

History would record that 353 Japanese planes, in two waves, reached Oahu; 29 of the planes and five midget submarines were lost in an attack that lasted about two hours.

On the American side, 2,403 people died and 1,179 were wounded. Eighteen ships — including five battleships — were sunk or run aground.

Barsell still recalls the sirens, the sounds of ammunition being fired and helping direct medics to where they were needed.

But he remembers something else.

“The sights and sounds were all there, but hardly anybody talks about the aroma of the event,” he said. “Before all this happened, you could smell the gardenias and tropical flowers and within minutes afterward there was the stench of burning oil and gasoline. It all goes together. That smell accents the disaster.”

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When the sky was clear of planes, he said, the men were sent back to the barracks. The Red Cross was available so they could send messages home, and Barsell sent one to his mom and dad, Walter Sr. and Hazel.

After they had something to eat at the barracks, Barsell and another seaman were sent to the windward side of Oahu, each armed with a rifle to repel any landing parties. At night, they kept watch, not knowing what would happen.

“A Marine would go by once in a while with a dog, just checking, but there was no landing party,” he said.

The next day, Barsell was sent to his new duty station — the Pearl Harbor entrance -- for underwater sound detection.

“Our duty was to install underwater sound buoys and magnetic cables so we could tell if any ships were in the water sneaking in,” he said.

He did the work for two years, going out in a small boat, repairing sound buoys and magnetic cable. After that, he was sent to Long Island, New York, where he and other men were trained to go ahead of a landing party to set up communication systems.

Barsell was sent to Okinawa after the Americans took it, and he and other men slept in tents not far from a camp where Japanese prisoners of war were kept.

One night, one of the men, who slept with a knife under his pillow, had a nightmare. He woke up screaming and slashing at the net.

“It scared the heck out of us,” Barsell said.

After his six years in the Navy, Barsell, an electronic technician first class, went home and got a job at Hinky Dinky as a grocery stocker. He married a woman named Polly, who had a child. Together, they had five more children.

To earn more money, he joined the Naval Reserves and was sent to Korea. After about six months, he was discharged.

“They weren’t supposed to take me, because I had children at home,” Barsell said.

Barsell returned to Hinky Dinky and became a manager in Omaha. Two years later, he was sent to David City as store manager and a decade later to Wahoo, where he retired.

Polly died of Asiatic flu while they still lived in David City.

Barsell met his second wife, Bonnie, who had two children. They married, moved to Wahoo and had a child together.

Bonnie died of congestive heart failure years ago. Barsell has his children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Today, he is part of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. A sons and daughters of survivors group has formed, too.

On Sunday, Barsell will be 96 years old.

“Tempus fugit,” he said. That's time flies in Latin.

Barsell thinks about how Pearl Harbor made him grow up and what he learned.

“I was footloose and fancy free,” he said. “It showed me that life is for real. Nothing should be taken for granted. Enjoy the moment. Accept the things we cannot change.”


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