Bombing converted paradise to perdition

Senator Lawrence Jacobsen R-Gardnerville recalls the attack on Pearl Harbor while looking over a map of the area in his office at the Legislative Builing.  The Sen. was 17 at the time.  photo by Rick Gunn

Senator Lawrence Jacobsen R-Gardnerville recalls the attack on Pearl Harbor while looking over a map of the area in his office at the Legislative Builing. The Sen. was 17 at the time. photo by Rick Gunn

For a 17-year-old sailor who enlisted to get out of Minden, Pearl Harbor was paradise.

"I was tired of milking the cows and feeding the hogs and I heard there was a girl in every port," Lawrence Jacobsen said. "I thought that's the place for me."

That changed dramatically Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked.

Sen. Jacobsen, R-Minden, who is the longest-serving legislator in the state's history, enlisted in 1939 after graduating from Douglas County High School.

He and his pilot were warming up their "SOC" -- a fabric-winged biplane used as a long-range scout -- getting ready to leave Pearl Harbor to catch up with the cruiser Astoria when the attack began. The Astoria was not in port that morning. It had left with the U.S. carrier force the day before.

"All the sudden, everything started exploding around us," he said. "We thought it was a drill until a couple of airplanes exploded."

They jumped out and ran for cover in the cement-walled hangar as the first wave of Japanese planes strafed the air station on Ford Island. There was no thought of trying to take off. With a top speed just over 100 mph and a single .30-caliber machine gun pointing forward, the plane would have been no match for a Zero more than three times as fast.

Jacobsen said the survivors had to run again a few minutes later when a bomb hit the hangar and the planes and fuel inside began to explode. By that time, three of the eight airmen assigned to Astoria's scout plane unit already were dead. He said the survivors took cover along the shore of the harbor watching the attack happen all around them.

"One minute it was paradise," he said. "The next moment it was a complete disaster."

Ships, buildings and aircraft were burning, and there were bodies in the water around Ford Island.

"We were sitting ducks and everybody was just running, looking for a place to hide."

Jacobsen said things got crazier after the attack because everyone was certain the Japanese were going to invade.

"It was just like a bunch of maniacs," he said. "They were shooting at everything."

He said that included some American planes which had the misfortune to arrive just after dark.

He admits that, as a 17-year-old sailor, he didn't know enough about world events to even say who was attacking until some one saw the "meatball" insignia on the aircraft and identified them as Japanese.

It was the first but certainly not the last day of his naval career when he wasn't sure he would survive to tell the story. And he admits he certainly never thought then that he would be telling it for the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

He and the rest of the Astoria's air crews left Hawaii a day after the attack and caught up with the heavy cruiser. The fleet returned to Pearl Dec. 13. "It was still a mess and everybody was still spooky."

Only then was he able to call his mother in Minden and let her know he was alive.

But there was little time for rest. The Astoria and the carrier group were soon off to the Battle of the Coral Sea where the U.S. again suffered serious losses, including the Lexington. Jacobsen said he watched from his gun station as a bomb "went right down the stack" of the carrier.

During the course of the war, Jacobsen was involved in 15 battles, including Guadalcanal and Midway.

It was at Guadalcanal that the Astoria was sunk during a night battle with Japanese warships.

He remembers seeing about 15 sailors in one area during the battle. "Then a couple of shells hit. They just disappeared. Gone. We couldn't even see the enemy ships. It never should have happened, but we didn't know they were shifting around in back of us."

After more than two hours of bombardment by the Japanese warships, the Astoria was abandoned.

"We were in the water from midnight until 6 in the morning," he said. "We just latched onto anything that was floating."

Of the 1,400 aboard, only about 400 survived. Two other U.S. and one Australian cruiser were sunk that night.

"It was almost like losing family," he said. "You get so close."

He still has the clock from the cruiser's quarterdeck to keep the memory of the ship alive.

After the Astoria went down, crew members lived with the Marines on Guadalcanal for a couple of months before they were taken to San Francisco and reassigned.

He spent most of the rest of the war transferring from island to island as a mechanic and crew member on dive bombers and torpedo bombers.

"Island living wasn't bad," he said.

Except for the bats.

He was asked about the holes in the top of the tent once and told the guy, "That's because of the bats."

"These bats they were just like cats. They had a wingspan like..." he said, holding his hands about three feet apart.

And when the bats landed on the top of the tent, nervous Marines convinced them to leave by shooting through the top of the tents.

"The trouble was, when it rained, you had all these holes in the tent."

He says he was lucky enough to escape being wounded, but his adventures weren't over. During one raid on Rabaul on the island of New Britain, the torpedo bomber he was on was damaged.

"On the way home, the damned airplane quit," he said. "So we plopped her in the water. About an hour later, this PBY came by, landed in the water and picked us up, and the guy flying it was from Gardnerville. Imagine that."

He says his experiences in the war made him more religious.

"Prayer came much easier when you were scared," he said.

He also learned the importance of friendship.

"We made friends with everybody and anybody. You've got to work as a team."

Jacobsen admits to having medals and campaign ribbons "somewhere at home" but denies being a hero.

"I wasn't any hero. I was just lucky to go in one piece and come back in one piece -- and a little smarter," he said.

Six years and a world war later, he says Minden looked a lot better than when he left as a teenager.

Curtiss SOC Seagull

Type: scout/observation aircraft, single-engined biplane on floats.

Crew: 2: pilot, observer/gunner

Armament: two .30 caliber machine gun, one forward-firing and one rear-firing; up to 650 lbs. of bombs

Length: 26' 6"

Height: 14' 9"

Wingspan: 36' 0"

Wing Area: 342 sq. ft.

Empty Weight: 3,788 lbs.

Max. Weight at takeoff: 5,437 lbs.

Engine: 1 Pratt & Whitney engine, 600 hp

Range: 675 miles

Ceiling: 14,900 feet


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