Pearl Harbor survivor’s story reflects humanity, heroism
By JAMES SIMMONS News Review Correspondent
Making pancakes and corn fritters for the troops on Dec. 7, 1941, was the last normal thing Charles O. Harvey would do for the next four years.
He and other military people assigned to Hawaii were enjoying a peaceful Sunday mornings — a good time for a young military man to rent a private plane, build some flying hours and enjoy the tranquility of the tropical skies, which were quiet, peaceful and uncrowded. A mere $5 bought an aspiring aviator the time and vehicle for training flights.
On that Sunday morning on Oahu, however, those peaceful skies turned horribly tragic. Those industrious few flying over artillery camps like the one where Charles Harvey served pancakes were the first to die. Incoming Japanese warplanes encountered these small, unarmed training flights around the back of the island as they made their approach toward Honolulu and the U.S. Navy fleet in Pearl Harbor. The tiny Pipers and Cessnas made for excellent target practice.
The Army had installed artillery camps around the periphery of the island.
Charles was big and tall, but only 16 and recently a member of the South Gate High School, Calif., football team. He and his good friend Henry were now deployed in a camp two dozen miles from Pearl Harbor.
They had joined the Army Guard to make a precious few dollars each month, training and drilling. Their two paper routes just were not enough.
Coming home from football practice one day, Charles found a Sgt. Brissey in a chair in the Harveys’ home. The sergeant was there to take the young man with him — now — to fill in a billet waiting for him in Battery F of the 251st Coast Artillery of Long Beach.
But so young? “If you’re big enough, you’re old enough,” Charles explained. The Army needed the troops even if, after a few weeks training, he was sent up to Ventura to “guard the sand.”
The Leonard Wood was a giant vessel used to move cattle from big ranches in Hawaii. But it was put into service to ferry troops, now including the 251st’s Battery F. The steaming, putrid hold now had bunks, but horrible conditions.
Following his father’s specific admonition, Charles had come aboard and gone immediately to the purser’s office, and asked for a job. Peeling potatoes wasn’t grand, but it got him quarters up above and not down in that awful hold.
Once in Hawaii, his unit made its way to a place some 24 miles from Honolulu, where the soldiers were to build their own camp. Then they were to be ready, as were many other units already in place, to guard the coast.
All had been well. Some of the guys had gone into town the night before, and some were up and showering on this early Sunday morning.
The unit’s regular cook had been a bit “overserved” the night before and hadn’t made the call to prepare breakfast for the other 60 guys in the unit. Harvey had some kitchen experience — that potato-peeling job aboard the cattle transport ship — so he was called in as “Second Cook” that morning.
All too horribly quickly, word arrived of terrible injuries sustained by personnel, including some of those showering not 100 yards away, as aircraft headed to Pearl strafed positions near and far. Harvey’s high school buddy, Henry, who had been along the whole time since South Gate football, died in that first wave of strafing.
Second Cook Charles Harvey scurried to join troops piling into a transport truck and fitted himself flat on the floor. Sounds of destruction and hell arriving made that truck ride to Pearl “very scary,” he noted, defining the day. A ferry took them across the harbor to protection on Ford Island. The night was even worse.
His remaining unit members jumped into making telephone communications secure among the artillery sites. Bedlam continued as the U.S. Navy dropped depth charges for two weeks all around the harbor, “like it was going out of style,” Charles recalled, his voice and memory clear and strong. They didn’t know, but feared, that enemy submarines were attaching magnets to hulls in the harbor, to facilitate more damage. With the Navy feeding and sheltering them, Battery F stayed until May1942.
Harvey was sent to Fiji, and then on to the hell of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. While Guadalcanal marked the transition by the Allies from defensive operations to the strategic offensive in that theater, for many of the supply and support troops like Harvey, they do not forget the painful visions of mule trains bringing out the body bags.
Harvey’s name was picked from a fishbowl one day, and he departed camp briskly 20 minutes later. Some 33 days later, he landed in New Orleans. After a couple of interim stops, he mustered out at Camp Roberts along the Salinas River in central California.
Later he began a pitiful, and way-too-long, pursuit of the $33.33 he should have had coming in every month, but that’s a story for another day.
Charles had been born in Peru, Neb., way down in the southeast corner near the Missouri River. His folks worked advancing a bus line across the country, ending up honest but broke, out of work in Salt Lake City, as the Depression crushed the bus business. Dad did have his ’33 Ford and got the family out to Huntington Park in California, where he found work at Rheem Manufacturing.
They eventually bought a house in South Gate, where Charles could go to high school and play football.
Now 91 and living energetically in the Mojave Desert, Charles is the sent-from-central-casting exemplar of American hero. He is witty and wry, sharp and bright, and he will speak his mind. Forged in the fire and steel of Pearl Harbor, this man is not just a survivor. He is a champion.Story First Published: 2013-12-04