Pearl Harbor memories live on in WWII pilot

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Pearl Harbor memories live on in WWII pilotCmdr. Glenn Tierney (center) with Laura Hickle at the recent gala celebrating China Lake’s 75th anniversary — Photo by Laura Austin

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When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, killing more than 2,400 Americans, the men, women and children in our country vowed never to forget. But even the youngest in uniform on “that date which will live in infamy” turn 95 this year.

As the survivors dwindle in number, those old enough to remember that day have carried on the tradition of sharing with younger generations the events that forged our “greatest” of all.

Glenn Tierney was 17, just about to sit down to Sunday dinner with his family in North Bergen, N.J., when the news came on the radio. Like families across the country in those days, the Tierneys remained glued to their radio to hear the incoming news of the stunning attack and the message that followed from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Tierney notes that while Pearl Harbor may have expedited his service to his country, “As it turns out, that was my plan all along.”

In 1932, when Tierney was 8 years old, his father took him to see the USS Langley — the only Navy carrier at that time — anchored in the Hudson River.

“I was so impressed, after seeing all those magnificent airplanes and talking to one of the pilots,” he recalled. “I announced to my father on the way home, ‘Dad, I am going to become a Navy pilot.”

Tierney graduated from high school a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And in fall 1942 he was a freshman at Columbia University. He had a nomination to the Naval Academy for the following year, but “did not want to miss out on a perfectly good war going on by sitting in Annapolis.”

In 1945, while Tierney was still only 20 years old, “I did get my hand into World War II,” he said.

“On a cold dawn morning I was flying an F4U Corsair off a carrier in the South Atlantic.” His orders were to search the area for enemy submarines. He found a German sub, “which should have submerged several minutes sooner,” he said.

Tierney said that as the enemy attacked with an AA gun mounted forward of the conning tower, he managed to strafe the sub. “My six 50-caliber machine guns took out the gun crew plus the gun and a couple of unfortunates who were still in the conning tower,” he recalled.

“On my second run, while he was submerging, I literally cut off his snorkel tube, which also contained his radio, radar antennas and periscope — all of which put him out of business.”

Tierney and his group surmised that the sub did not sink, but limped back to Europe.

He never received a commendation for that action.

“Actually, there’s a strange story there,” he said. “We got back to the carrier, and the intelligence people didn’t believe our story. Made us mad as hell, but I was just a skinny gold-bar ensign. What was I going to do?”

Multiple witnesses confirmed the story, said Tierney, but the intelligence officer apparently said during the debrief that such an event was impossible.

“He said we were making it up because there were no submarines in the area. So I said, ‘Then why the hell did I get up at 3:30 in the morning to go out looking for one?’”

Tierney returned to the mainland a week later, and the war ended a few months after that. “I never heard anything about it again.”

After the war, Tierney played an important role — along with famed naval aviator Wally Schirra — in testing the Sidewinder at China Lake. In a funny twist of fate, Tierney noted, Schirra was the one who took the spot he abandoned at the military academy.

Tierney ended up going back to college after he retired from the military in 1971. But it took him 11-and-a-half years to work his way through earning a degree in finance.

Tierney and his wife, Kathy — who now make their home in Carlsbad — are recording his story for an upcoming book — which will also feature many of the characters and stories at China Lake.

“Glenn is a character,” said China Lake Museum Foundation President Laura Hickle, who helped bring him here for the 75th anniversary celebration of the Navy at China Lake.

“Getting to meet and know this legacy and important person in the Navy’s history has been a great experience for me,” she said.

Tierney supports CLMF as a director emeritus, and also volunteers at the USS Midway in San Diego.

“We are excited to move ahead on getting a bronze statue of Glenn standing next to a Sidewinder for the museum,” said Hickle.Anyone interested in donating toward the remaining $4,000 needed for the cause can e-mail her at hicklelh@gmail.com.

Story First Published: 2018-12-07