Navy veteran, 101, recalls Pearl Harbor attack

U.S. Navy Seaman 1st Class David Russell sought refuge below deck on the USS Oklahoma when Japanese bombs began falling on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

But a split-second decision changed his mind, and likely saved his life.

“I thought, ‘What am I doing down here?’ I was trained to be an anti-aircraft loader,” says Russell, now 101. “I went topside. By the time I went topside, the ship was almost ready to capsize.”

Russell plans to return to Pearl Harbor on Tuesday for a ceremony in remembrance of those who died. The event marks the 80th anniversary of the attack that launched the U.S. into World War II.

The Oklahoma lost 429 sailors and Marines, the second greatest death toll that day after the USS Arizona’s 1,177. Altogether more than 2,300 American troops were killed.

Russell will join about 30 survivors of Pearl Harbor and 100 other veterans from the war expected at the remembrance. They’ll observe a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the minute the attack began.

Last year, survivors – who are in their late 90s or older – stayed home due to the coronavirus pandemic and watched a livestream of the event instead.

Russell is traveling to Hawaii with the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former NFL Linebacker Donnie Edwards that helps World War II veterans revisit their old battlefields.

Eighty years ago, Russell had to clamber over and around toppled lockers while the battleship slowly rolled over.

Once he got to the main deck, he crawled over the ship’s side and and jumped to a rope hanging from the Maryland and escaped to the battleship without injury.

He then helped pass ammunition to the Maryland’s anti-aircraft guns.

After the battle, he and two others went to an administrative center on Ford Island seeking a bathroom.

“I went inside and that’s where most of the, uh, men that were burnt, they were laying alongside the wall there,” he recalls. “You feel for those guys but I couldn’t do anything. You just light their cigarettes for them and let them puff their cigarettes.”

In the first two days after the bombing, a civilian crew from the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard rescued 32 men trapped inside the Oklahoma by cutting holes in its hull. But many others perished.

Russell still thinks about the terrible things he saw, especially at night.

“When I was in the VA Hospital there in San Francisco, they said, ‘We want you to talk about World War II’ and I says, ‘When we talk about it, people don’t believe us. They just walk away,'” he says.

Russell remained in the Navy until retiring in 1960. He worked at Air Force bases for the next 20 years and retired for good in 1980.

His wife, Violet, passed away 22 years ago, and he now lives alone in Albany, Oregon.

He still drives and has breakfast many times a week at the American Legion post there, where he shares World War II stories with other veterans from more recent U.S. wars.

He says he is happy to share because “now, people want to know more about it so we’re trying to talk about it.”

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