Memories of Pearl Harbor still sharp in mind of Illinois veteran

Matt Buedel

Call Harold Walters whatever you want, just not, as the Pearl Harbor survivor requests, a hero.

The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he did the same as the rest of the guys stationed at the naval base as Japanese forces attacked: He stared bewildered at the sky and smoke. He took cover on his ship, the U.S.S. Dobbin, where the crew had to reassemble guns that had been taken apart for inspection as the bombardment raged.

He dug shrapnel out of his buddy, one of two men on the Dobbin who were wounded and lived. Three others died.

And when the bombs stopped falling, he went to work, using a blow torch to cut holes in the sides of listing ships, allowing fresh air and, sometimes, an escape route for fellow sailors trapped below the decks.

He was 17. And he wasn't a hero, he says.

"I did the same thing all the other guys did," he said from his home in Cuba as the 66th anniversary of the surprise attack that drew the United States into World War II approached. "I'm no different than anybody else."

Walters -- his mother nicknamed him "Speck" when he was young and raised six children on her own -- was living a hardscrabble life in Rushville in 1941 when a few friends convinced him to drop out of high school and join the service with them.

He'd been working odd jobs to support himself and wasn't staying with his family most of the time, so enlisting seemed like a good idea. He joined the Navy about six months before the war started and arrived in Pearl Harbor from San Francisco less than a month before the attack.

He lived aboard the Dobbin, a World War I-era ship with equally aged armaments. The crew ate and slept in the same space, stowing cots in the mornings and filling the mess hall with tables and benches that lined the sides of the hall at night.

Walters was "volunteered" that December morning to carry benches to the deck for Sunday church services, one Catholic and one Protestant. He and a pal he met on board -- the name escapes him now, though the memory remains vivid -- made a handful of trips from the mess hall to the deck, benches in tow.

"About the fifth trip up, here come those planes dropping bombs," he said. "We weren't no more prepared for that than the man in the moon."

His volunteer partner was hit -- a piece of shrapnel in his left buttock. Walters yanked free the jagged steel chunk, a smoking hot bomb fragment that cauterized the very wound it inflicted, possibly preventing fatal bleeding.

He still has it somewhere around the house -- still sharp as a razor, as sharp as his memory of that day -- even if he can't remember where he set it down a few weeks ago.

For him, it's a macabre reminder of that morning and the handful of days afterward, before he set sail with the remaining vestiges of a crippled Navy fleet to answer for the attack, for the more than 2,400 fallen patriots, for an entire nation.

He spent the rest of the war in the Pacific, taking part in a handful of major sea battles and winding up in Tokyo Bay the day the treaty with the Japanese was signed. He was discharged three hours later, though it would take him more than a month to make it back to the states – about four months after his 21st birthday, the day he originally had been scheduled to be discharged.

Years later, during the Korean War, Walters was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Germany, where he eventually became a medic for 1st Infantry Division Artillery football team, the Caissons, the central conference champions in 1951.

He returned to central Illinois and settled into a construction career that, except for a brief stint as the owner of a grocery store in Beardstown in the mid-1960s, lasted more than 40 years. He retired in 1990.

Today, he's the last of his buddies who joined the service together more than six decades ago and one of fewer than 5,000 Pearl Harbor survivors still alive. He knows experiencing the devastation there changed him forever, but he can't articulate it.

"I don't know how to explain it," he said.

Instead of trying, Walters, 83, enjoys a simple life. Beneath the plaque of military medals hanging in his bedroom is a case of chocolate-covered pecan clusters.

The ladies at the church where he buys the over-sized box every year tell him to put them in the freezer so they'll keep, but he never does. He knows they won't last long enough to go bad.

"A lot of people go to the tavern and drink, a lot of people smoke," he said. "I sit in front of the TV and eat chocolates."

Peoria Journal Star writer Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or

By the numbers

350: Japanese aircraft used to carry out the mission

2,403: U.S. military personnel and civilians killed.

18: U.S. warships sunk or capsized.

Dec. 8: Day United States declared war on Japan*

* President Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941 "a date which will live in infamy."