JEFFERSON — Vernon Carter still remembers seeing the smiling face of a Japanese pilot as the attack on Pearl Harbor unfolded the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
Carter, who was stationed at Hickam Field in Hawaii with the U.S. 7th Army Air Corps, awoke at 8 a.m. that day to a war zone outside his barracks.
"‘I jumped up and looked out towards Pearl Harbor and saw the dive bombers diving at the big oil storage tanks. Several of them went up in flames and smoke,’" Carter said, reading from a letter he wrote to his parents, J.Z. and Nora Carter, soon after the attack.
"We had two raids, about a half an hour apart, the first was Pearl Harbor, (and) the second was Hickam Field."
As he hurriedly tried to get to his office, Carter, who was 21 at the time, said a Japanese plane flew toward him,
buzzing the barracks.
"I backed up under the eave of the barracks, and of course he wasn’t trying to shoot me, but as he went by, just barely over the top of the barracks, he looked down and grinned at me," Carter said.
Today marks the 68th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said "will live in infamy," and the event that propelled the U.S. into World War II.
Carter, 90, said there are only an estimated 100 Pearl Harbor survivors still alive today in Georgia. And, as far as Carter knows, he is the only living survivor in Jackson County.
Japan’s aerial assault, now well-documented in an untold number of history books, began shortly before 8 a.m. and ended less than two hours later.
In that time, 2,403 Americans lost their lives, including 68 civilians, while another 1,178 were injured, according to U.S. Department of Defense records.
Twenty-one of the U.S. Pacific fleet’s ships were either sunk or damaged in the attack, and 188 aircraft were destroyed and 159 damaged, according to records.
The memory of that morning — the unmistakable hum of aircrafts overhead, bombs falling, engulfing Pearl Harbor in a fiery deluge, and the sight of his comrades dying — remains with Carter.
As reminders, a Pearl Harbor survivor license plate and war medals adorn a wall in Carter’s home near downtown Jefferson.
He joined Jefferson’s American Legion Albert Gordon Post No. 56 in 1946 and also joined a local Pearl Harbor survivors club, where he marched in parades in Atlanta and Gainesville, bearing a banner that read "Pearl Harbor Survivors."
A letter Carter wrote home to his parents, dated Dec. 7, 1941, is perhaps the most telling account of his experience in Hawaii.
The letter, penned in cursive writing, describes the horror that Carter and others endured that day on Hickam Field.
Last week, at the urging of his wife, Ruth, Carter reread the letter he sent home so many years ago.
"‘The dead was piled all around. Some of the boys in the barracks were blown to pieces, they couldn’t identify them,’" he read from the letter to his parents. "‘It was so quick, we didn’t know what happened.’"
Carter’s letter also notes that a shell crashed through his room, just 3 feet from his bed, and the closest bomb fell 500 yards from him. Hickam Field, he wrote, was "pretty well wrecked."
"We had our planes lined up side by side and we thought that maybe that’d protect them from sabotage, but of course the Japanese planes came in just barely over the top of the runway there and they destroyed our planes and started bombing the hangars and barracks," he said.
The attack happened not long after Carter arrived in Hawaii. Knowing he was going to be drafted, Carter voluntarily joined the U.S. Army Air Corps to avoid the infantry.
The lifelong Jefferson resident was sent to Hawaii in June 1941 and remained in the Hickam Field Ordnance, stationed at the Army Air Corps’ Hickam Field, for four years.
Immediately following the attack, Carter said U.S. forces remained on edge, anticipating another assault.
"It was several days before we realized that maybe they weren’t coming back," he said.
And while he can no longer attend reunions with other Pearl Harbor survivors, there is a good chance that today his thoughts may drift back to that morning.
"Anybody that was over there, I’m sure they will never forget that day and what they saw," he said. "It don’t leave, it just don’t leave you."