PDT Staff Writer
Sam Roberson remembers well that infamous Sunday morning 67 years ago, when the Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes came roaring out of a dazzling Hawaiian sunrise packing death and destruction.
Roberson, at the time a 23-year-old radioman first class, was one of 27 sailors on board the little sea-going tug, Bobolink, docked in close to shore between Hickman Field and Ford Island.
“I had gotten up at 4 a.m. to go on radio watch,” Roberson recalled as he visited friends in the South Shore, Ky. area. “I got off duty at 7:30, ate breakfast, and went back down to make up my bunk.
“While down there in the steering department, I heard from the open hatch above this chief boatswain mate yell, ‘God almighty, look at that!’”
Robinson leaped up the ladder and stuck his head out the hatch just in time to see six planes coming at them over the naval air station on Ford Island.
“I knew at first glance there was no chance that these were our own planes on some kind of practice run,” Roberson said. “Every time they would pass a building, the building would blow up behind them.”
The sound coming over the tug’s public address system confirmed that this was the real thing. General quarters sounded. “Battle stations! Man your battle stations!”
“My battle station was antenna repair. I wasn’t about to go up there and repair any antennas. None down, anyway. I first went into the radio shack,” Roberson said.
“The first thing I noticed after I got up there was a plane coming in over the gate of the naval yard, just over the treetops. Some Marine on guard duty there shot him down with a small-caliber automatic rifle. The plane crashed over behind the hospital. I went over that afternoon and picked up a piece of the plane. I still have it. As far as I know, it was the first Japanese plane to go down.”
Roberson left the radio shack and began hurriedly loading one of the two old Lewis magazines mounted on deck, each of which held 50 rounds.
Now came more planes that seemed to be just a few feet off of the water, roaring in between the ships docked on either side of the harbor.
“They were right on top of us. It seemed like you could almost reach out and shake hands with the pilot. It was wild! Some of our boys who’d been on deck peeling potatoes actually threw potatoes at them. We would swing the guns and shoot at the planes and we did finally hit one. But there were times, I’m sure, that we wound up hitting our own ships. Everybody was in sort of a panic.”
The attack had begun that Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, at 7:55 local time. When it was over, the Japanese planes had sunk or severely damaged 19 U.S. ships, including eight battleships, and destroyed 188 aircraft on the ground.
The death toll totaled 2,280 military people and 68 civilians. Another 1,109 members of the military were wounded.
Roberson’s ship escaped damage.
“We were moored near the old coal docks, where the tipples were nearly 200 feet high. A few planes in the first wave of attack swooped around them and came in low over us, but I guess they figured we weren’t worthy of a bomb or torpedo when they might get a battleship.”
Roberson joined the Navy in August 1938 in Nashville, Tenn. He cruised through the Caribbean, up to the World’s Fair in New York, back to the West Coast, and wound up operating in Pearl Harbor in 1940.
He was discharged on April Fool’s Day 1946. He visited Portsmouth shortly after getting out, having relatives here, but wound up going to Alaska and getting into a career as a freelance outdoors writer for some major U.S. magazines.
Roberson, who’ll turn 91 in May, lives with his wife, Annie, in a log house in Lobelville, Tenn., just 14 miles as the crow flies from Loretta Lynn’s ranch.
He continues to write an outdoors column for the Buffalo River Review, a weekly newspaper published in his home county.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.