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A witness to history: Bemidji man recalls attack on Pearl Harbor

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BEMIDJI — Seventy-two years ago today, Bruce Atwater was assigned to sweep out an officer’s recreation hall at the U.S. Navy base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

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Although the Bemidji man had no idea at the time, what happened during that simple work detail would change his life. Atwater was sweeping up when he heard the roar of airplane engines overhead. As he ran outside the rec hall to investigate, Japanese warplanes on their way to Battleship Row flew directly overhead.

From a half mile away, he watched as those planes obliterated ship after ship. He saw the battleship Oklahoma overturn, and the U.S.S. Arizona explode when a bomb hit its ammunition stores. Although thousands of men were dying before his eyes, Atwater initially could do nothing to help them, as he was ordered to stay back.

“The loudspeaker system that connected the buildings told everybody to stay where you were, don’t try to go down in the harbor and help because you’ll only make matters worse,” Atwater, 92, recalled Friday at a local event to honor him at Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union.

Originally from Williams, Minn., Atwater was living in Canada when war broke out in Europe in 1939. To avoid the possibility of the 18-year-old Atwater being drafted into the Canadian armed forces, he came back to Minnesota. He worked as a lumberjack before restlessness set in and he joined the U.S. Coast Guard anyway in 1941.

He had been in the Coast Guard for six weeks and in Hawaii for three days when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Tense hours

Ordered to stay back after the initial attack, Atwater spent several hours in the sick bay, helping tend to the hundreds of wounded men. He’s done his best to suppress the memory of those hours, he said.

“I have chosen to forget about most of that,” he said.

That morning’s attack was just the beginning of Pearl Harbor’s ordeal. Everyone expected the Japanese to follow the air attack with a ground invasion of Hawaii.

As night fell, Atwater and his fellow Coast Guardsmen were handed rifles and ammunition to aid in fending off the troops that never came. A flight of four American planes was mistaken for another wave of Japanese bombers, and Atwater watched the sky light up as they came under a hail of anti-aircraft fire. Two of the planes were shot down.

“I’ve never seen a fireworks display to equal it,” he said.

The next day’s dawn revealed Atwater and his compatriots probably would have done more damage to themselves than the enemy had the Japanese actually landed: the guns they had been given were still covered in cosmoline gel from storage.

“If you’d have fired them, you’d have blown your head off,” he said.

The soldiers and sailors at Pearl were still nervous days after the attack, Atwater remembered. None of the buildings had air conditioning, and you could go on the roof to stay cool — if you were willing to risk being shot at by trigger-happy guards.

“Things were tense,” Atwater recalled.

The chase

Another close call for Atwater was when he was chosen to be part of a commando unit bound for Guadalcanal. He trained for three months under Marine instructors (“a mean bunch of bastards”) before the invasion plans were moved up and the unit was disbanded “as quickly as we got assembled.”

Not that Atwater was complaining.

“I never regretted that, for sure,” he said.

Atwater still saw combat as a crew member on the Coast Guard cutter Reliance in 1944. About a month and half before he was sent stateside, Atwater’s boat was testing a new form of underwater tracking equipment near Johnston Island in the Pacific with the help of an American submarine. They had been “tracking” the friendly submarine for three days when they realized something was very, very wrong.

“Suddenly, the guys operating this new sound equipment came up and said ‘We’ve got TWO submarines down there,’” he remembered. “Then the excitement started.”

The Reliance had just stumbled across an enemy submarine in an area that was supposed to be clear of hostile vessels. They sent the American submarine back to port and immediately gave chase to the enemy sub — with Atwater at the wheel.

Since Reliance was in a supposedly “friendly” area, they were forced to wait four hours for authorization to start dropping depth charges. When they finally did get the go-ahead from command, they found they had another problem — the relatively tiny Reliance could only do 10 knots at top speed.

“Right on the rack where we had all of our depth charges it said, ‘Do not drop unless going 15 knots,’” Atwater said.

Although they risked damaging their own ship with the explosive force, Reliance still cut loose with depth charges. Debris floated up from the sub, but it was obviously a ruse to make them think it had been sunk, Atwater said.

“Just like we had hit them — but we surely didn’t,” he remembered. “My goodness, we only dropped about five depth charges.”

Reliance radioed for help, but had trouble getting the Navy to believe the fact a Coast Guard cutter was actually taking on an enemy submarine in supposedly safe waters. They waited nervously for any ship better equipped for combat to come to their aid. The Reliance had been built almost 20 years earlier to chase rum-runners during Prohibition, and if the enemy submarine surfaced, the only thing left for the little cutter to do was ram it.

Finally, friendly destroyers converged on their position and went after the sub.

“We just backed off and had fun watching them,” Atwater remembered. “They never got the submarine.”

Back to the states

Having served his required time at sea, Atwater was sent back to the United States and spent the rest of the war at various training and office postings.

Atwater later found out he had technically never been in the Coast Guard during World War II, as it had been absorbed into the Navy weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack. Atwater had signed enlistment papers for the duration of the war “plus” and ironically spent his last months in the Coast Guard stuck behind a desk discharging thousands of reservists who only had to serve for the duration.

But it wasn’t all boring, as Atwater recalled. Float plane pilots at his base in Miami still had to complete a certain amount of time in the air in order to draw flight pay, even though there were no enemy planes to patrol for and a shortage of crew members to serve as the required lookout in the plane. That meant Atwater rode along on countless flights over the Caribbean in the bombardier’s spot.

“I didn’t drop any bombs, though,” he joked.

To see a video of Atwater telling his World War II story, visit http://www.ww2bji.org/

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