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75 years after attack, Pearl Harbor still resonates with area residents
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World War II veteran Henry T. “Jeep” Woodliff meets other veterans following a recent Gainesville Rotary Club meeting that honored 13 local WWII veterans. Woodliff was in the U.S. Army, stationed on the Hawaiian island of Oahu Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Henry T. “Jeep” Woodliff didn’t know it yet, but history was about to be made — and very near his Army base.

Early the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese fighter planes soared over his head as he stood on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

“They didn’t fire at us and we didn’t fire at them,” said Woodliff, who turned 101 on Sept. 11 and lives in Hall County. “That saved me that day.”

A remembrance ceremony is planned Wednesday at Pearl Harbor recognizing the 75th anniversary of the attack, which killed more than 2,300 servicemen and plunged the United States into World War II.

Woodliff, recognized along with a dozen other World War II veterans at a recent Gainesville Rotary Club meeting, said he couldn’t fire at the planes because soldiers had been given new weapons but no ammunition.

“Henry was ordered to move the officers’ cars out of harm’s way,” according to a short biography presented at the meeting.

“He did this as the bombs were actually exploding,” daughter Sheryl Creek said in an interview on her father’s 100th birthday.

Otherwise, soldiers took cover as bombs exploded.

By the attack’s end, eight U.S. Navy battleships were damaged, with four sunk. A memorial sits over the USS Arizona’s sunken wreckage, a somber reminder of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to as a “a date which will live in infamy.”

It was a day that South Hall resident Herb Rusk can’t forget.

He was about 30 miles away with his parents and sister when the attack happened.

“When we awoke (that) Sunday morning, we heard the sounds of bombs exploding but thought it was just more bombing practice up at the bomb range a few miles northeast of our house,” he said.

“The news on the radio quickly convinced us otherwise. Dad immediately left for Pearl and didn’t return for 48 hours.”

Rusk’s father worked for a Navy contractor doing work on facilities at Pearl Harbor and many of the islands throughout the Pacific Ocean, he said.

“We had arrived two weeks earlier, after sailing from Los Angeles,” he said.

Rusk said his parents “never said that life in Hawaii in 1942 was normal, (but) fear of another attack and a shortage of goods and food in the stores were the things they commented most about.”

One of Hall County’s most well-known Pearl Harbor survivors was Mack Abbott, who documented his ordeal in a book, “First and Last Shots Fired in World War II.”

Abbott, who died in 2014, was in his barracks when he saw a low-flying Japanese plane coming out of a cloud bank, he once said in an interview with The Times.

“... I got back to my room and ... was shooting the breeze with two other guys when all of a sudden, I heard an explosion and looked out the window, which faced the shipyard,” he said.

A sergeant told Abbott, a private first class, to “start firing at those guys.”

He went to a parade field and took aim with an M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle as the attacking aircraft flew overhead.

He later helped men who were swimming back from ships to get to a hospital.

“The hospital got full, so (we were told) to put them in the grass in front of the hospital,” he said. “They had one nurse out there checking them to see which one would be next to go in.”

Wilber Beck of Oakwood said in a Times article before his 2000 death that when a bomb exploded at the Army’s Hickman Field, he rushed from his hangar and saw Japanese planes swoop down and attack the base.

“I yelled, ‘Everybody run, the Japanese are bombing us,’” Beck said.

The attack, announced on radio and in newspapers, sent a shiver through America.

“I recalled being scared, very scared for my dad and my family, who were back in New Jersey,” recalled West Hall resident W.A. “Cap” Van Valkenburgh. “The reports were very scary.”

Nine years old at the time, he had taken a trip with his mother to visit relatives in south Texas.

Lula City Councilman Mordecai Wilson was at his home in Ohio when he heard the news over a car radio. Concerns immediately went up that Wilson — who was 16 at the time — would have to go to war.

He said his parents “weren’t quite ready for that, naturally.”

“And … going to school, this (attack) was the big talk,” said Wilson, who would go on to serve in the Navy during the war.

Fellow Lula resident Margaret Peeples said she remembers hearing about Pearl Harbor after coming home from a church singing.

“I think Daddy told me,” she said. “It scared us to death, to tell you the truth.”

Before the attack, many Americans knew nothing about Pearl Harbor.

Bob Stone, of Alto, was 11 at the time, growing up in Lula.

He remembered “a group of us kids went walking in the pasture after lunch” that day.

“When we returned to the house, someone said, ‘The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor!’ And, I said, ‘Who is Pearl Yarborough? I never heard of her!’”

The attack has been compared to 9/11.

“Like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor has been called a defining moment in U.S. history,” according to military.com, a military and veterans organization.

“It caught the country by surprise, rallied its people against their attackers and thrust the nation into a long, difficult war against tyranny.”

The Pearl Harbor attack was discussed at some length at the Rotary meeting by University of North Georgia faculty members Chris Jespersen and Richard Byers.

“It did not determine the fact that the United States was going to enter the war,” Jespersen said. “It determined when. The United States was going to enter the war. The question was when.”

Jespersen said that at the time, Japan’s leaders believed Americans “were too happy, too large and too lazy” and “would not fight that hard to retain or regain the territory they had lost.”

“The Japanese leadership had made a serious mistake,” he said.

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