Sunday, December 07, 2008

Day of Infamy : Alex Man Survived Pearl Harbor

Source: Alexandria Times-Tribune, December 11, 1991.

Day of Infamy: Alex Man Survived Pearl Harbor by Stephen Dick

It was the Day of Infamy. 50 years ago. Sleepy Pearl Harbor Navla [sic] Base in Hawaii, where reveille had been about an hour old. Sailors were waking up, taking showers, ands [sic] finding their way to the mess decks for a steaming cup of coffee.

The ships were lined up in port. On Battleship Row were some of the Navy's mightiest warships, named after the states. The USS Arizona has become the most famous but sitting two ships away, outboard from another battleship, was the USS Oklahoma. On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, a first class cook named John M. High, already a five-year veteran of the Navy, was preparing chow for his shipmates. Just another Sunday morning, the ship probably in holiday routine.

While the men ate their breakfasts, the waters 200 miles north of Oahu were infested with Japanese ships including six carriers loaded with warplanes. Around 8 a.m. the squadron of Japanese bombers snaked around the mountain ridges that bordered Oahu. Past the mountains and over the sea the bombers turned north toward Pearl Harbor and dropped their lethal cargo on the unsuspecting men below. For a half hour 183 planes decimated much of the US's second fleet. Twenty ships were damaged, many sunk, including the USS Oklahoma where John High, like his shipmates, may have thought the apocalypse was upon them.

High went topside, saw the carnage, and knew his ship was going down. The ship had suffered repeated torpedo assaults. He had no recourse but to jump into the water which was covered with burning oil. High suffered some mild burns and was forced to swim under water to shore.

Soon his ship lay on the bottom of Pearl Harbor along with the Arizona and others. Also at the bottom were his naval records. He was listed as missing in action for six weeks after the attack. When High, who was from West Virginia, ran into a man he knew from home, the man was incredulous. "We thought you were dead." he told High.

John M. High is alive to this day, and makes his home in Alexandria. He moved here in the late Forties with his wife, Clara Ellen Wright, who was from Alexandria. Because he survived Pearl Harbor, where 2,000 soldiers and sailors died, High was honored last Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the attack, by the Alexandria Veterans of Foreign Wars where he was made an honorary member.

High is not the youth he was when he heard and felt the Japanese bombs falling that morning. At 72, he suffered a stroke two years ago and does very little nowadays. But Clara said he enjoyed the ceremony on Saturday. "John got emotional about it," she said.

When he was 22, however, he was more worried about getting his pay than he was about the historical significance of the bombing. When he tried to get paid, long after the attack, he was told he'd have to wait because of his missing records. High told the Navy he'd be going home. He got paid, and spent the war years in the Pacific on a number of ships. Clara could not recall their names but said he was often in combat situations.

In 1945, with the war over, John was transferred to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. There he met Clara, a WAVE, who had joined the Navy from Alexandria. They married in 1945. He was the chief commissaryman at Great Lakes until his discharge in 1947.

The couple came back to Alexandria to make their home. John worked at a number of jobs including Stellite in Alexandria. He was transferred by that company to Kokomo and retired from there in 1984.

The couple had two sons, Charles, who served with the Army as an MP, in El Paso, Texas, and Phillip, who also joined the Army and spent time in Korea.

During the years where the war retreated into memory, John and Clara frequently went to reunions of survivors of the USS Oklahoma. There the stories and memories flowed. A compartment full of men had sunk with the ship, but in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor they had made enough noise to be heard. When they were rescued by divers, they had spent time in pitch black darkness with water up to their necks. Then there was a priest aboard from Dubuque, Iowa, who rescued many men by forcing them out of a small porthole into the water. The priest had perished, however, as he was too large to fit through the opening.

Clara said that attending the survivors' reunions was like getting together with family. One reunion took place in Hawaii and a survivor from Mississippi was told by his doctor that his health wouldn't allow such a long trip. He told the doctor he'd rather be dead in Pearl Harbor than alive in Gulfport. He went and he returned.

The last reunion the Highs attended was in, aptly enough, Oklahoma City in 1990. Because of John's illness they did not attend the 1991 reunion, and will likely miss the 1992 get-together in Norfolk, Va.

But the memories and heroic actions of men under extreme conditions remain as an inspiration to us all. As VFW Commander Bill Tankersley said at Saturday's ceremony, "America answered the call and the rest is history."

The USS Arizona remains at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, a memorial to that day of infamy, and a reminder that we live in a volatile, unpredictable world. And what of the USS Oklahoma? She was raised and was going to be repaired. But as tugboats were pulling her out to sea, the lines broke and the ship sank again. The Navy let her rest. It was her men, not herself, that answered the call 50 years ago. John High was one of those men.

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