Charles Hocker wanted to escape Beaver Dam, Ky. Vito Colonna was trying to help out his struggling family in Cleveland. John Gideon followed a friend into the Navy, thinking about what young men think about.
“I pictured hula girls,” said Hocker.
And that’s why they were American military men in what seemed like paradise — in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on a day, 75 years ago, that will live in infamy.
They were so very young then, Gideon the oldest at 21. Today, for anyone who believes that time heals all wounds, that war can be left on the battlefield or even that survivor’s guilt recedes with time, listen to three nonagenarians who will, quietly, set you straight. They are from separate states, were interviewed separately and have little – and everything – in common.
“I lay awake in bed” some nights, said Gideon, now 96 and then a Navy Seaman 1st Class.
“The memories still flash through my mind,” said Hocker, 92, then in the Army only because he falsified his birth certificate.
“Why are you keeping me here?” Colonna, 92, then a Navy medic who was one of the few to survive the sinking of the USS Arizona, said he still asks God. “Did I do something wrong?”
Coming from a family with 16 children, Colonna at age 14 found work at a Cleveland hospital during the Depression and picked up terminology and tips from the medical staff. So when he joined the Navy two years later — lying about his age — he was tapped to be a medic.
On Dec. 7, he was working below deck when he decided to take a cigarette break. A nurse replaced him.
“I smoked a cigarette and all of a sudden we heard … the sound, like a pressure cooker,” Colonna said while imitating the harsh hiss and whistle from 75 years ago. “As sure as hell as the day is long, we looked up and it was a bomb that was coming down that hit the Arizona.”
Gideon was working on a motor launch when the first wave of attacks hit. “I couldn’t conceive what was happening,” he said. As he tried to get to the deck, a blast upended the boat.
“I came up with the boat and I came down in the oil and burning water,” Gideon said. “It burned my clothes off, and I got back on the rig stark naked.”
All three remember chaos – just total chaos.
Both Gideon and Hocker said the same thing: “There was no place to hide.” Hocker says nervous soldiers sometimes fired on each other. All three remember so many bodies.
“It tore the Arizona apart,” said Colonna, a retired carpenter and factory worker who lives in Sandusky, Ohio. He remembers falling, hitting the water on his back. His spine was fractured, although he didn’t know it at the time. He and others swam for the ship’s prop. “I prayed to God,” he said.
“My mind was so confused. I didn’t know where I was or what I could do.” In a matter of minutes, the teen had lost nearly all of his shipmates. “Most of them – almost all of them drowned,” he said.
Gideon, a retired mechanical engineer who lives in North Fort Myers, Fla., didn’t talk about this for years, says his wife of seven decades, Geraldine. “I didn’t even know he was a Pearl Harbor survivor,” she says. “He never really talked about it until someone brought it up just lately.”
Gideon has never returned to Hawaii; his wife doesn’t like to fly.
Hocker, a retired vending sales and maintenance worker who lives in Louisville, Ky., hasn’t talked much about his experiences, either, but now thinks he should as a voice for others. He was seriously injured soon after Pearl Harbor and felt guilty for years, he said, that he was on the sidelines while so many died.
“They killed a lot of my buddies,” he said.
He is in Hawaii this week with other survivors to take part in ceremonies — the first time he has returned since the attack.
Despite his injuries, Colonna went on to serve in some of the most gruesome fighting in the Pacific, including the invasion of Iwo Jima.
He still can’t believe how young he was – how young so many soldiers are when they see the worst things of their lives. “I was just a young kid, a 16-year-old punk,” Colonna said.
He talks about dealing with the trauma of the war, which haunted him for years. Colonna says he also hated the Japanese people for far too long. Doctors convinced him he had to talk about what he experienced at Pearl Harbor and the battles afterward as his mental salvation.
Still, he wonders why, of all those in the war, God is keeping him alive when so many other veterans are gone. Then he looks at everything he has done in his life. The former medic lost men in the field but said he saved men, too.
“Honest to God,” he said, “I saved a lot of my boys.”
Stacey Henson reports for The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press, Rebecca R. Brooks for The (Fremont, Ohio) News-Messenger and Chris Kenning for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.