Area veterans remember ‘day of infamy’
Charles J. Merdinger of Incline Village was 23 when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“I was in my bunk,” he said, “awakened by the alarms.”
He was aboard the battleship USS Nevada where he served in the main battery plotting room — the brains behind the big 14-inch guns. Only 10 months out of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., Merdinger was the officer who wound up being the highest-ranking man in the room.
“When we went back to help raise (the Nevada) a few weeks later, I found that my room had been blown completely away,” he remembered. “By either a bomb or a torpedo. It must have happened right after I left.”
While Merdinger spoke, Erick H. Bjourn, president of the Silver State Chapter No. 1 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, banged the gavel and brought the group to order at its monthly meeting in Carson City.
“It’s about 7:55 a.m. in Honolulu,” he said. “So please join me in observing one moment of silence.”
The group of about 30 bowed their heads and remembered how, 61 years ago, the Japanese attacked the Navy base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, a day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said would “live in infamy.”
In a testament to a tough battleship named for the Silver State, Merdinger described the history of the USS Nevada — the only battleship to get under way during the attack. After the ship was hit with several bombs and torpedoes at Pearl Harbor, the skipper ran it aground rather than risk being sunk in the channel. Nevada was later refloated and sailed to the Atlantic for use in the invasion of Normandy. In Okinawa, Nevada survived being hit by a kamikaze suicide pilot before she was used for target practice and atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific.
“They couldn’t sink it,” said Merdinger.
“She was a great lady,” said his wife, Mary Merdinger.
The current vessel named Nevada, SSBN 733, is the eighth OHIO Class nuclear-powered, ballistic missile submarine.
Bill Roney of Gardnerville grew up in Ely and joined the Navy in 1941.
He was stationed with an air squadron at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, which he thought was like a “South Seas cruise with all expenses paid” until the Dec. 7 attack.
“I was reporting for watch duty at the seaplane base when all of a sudden we saw this large flight of airplanes coming in from the northwest,” he said.
“We thought it was the Army Corps of Engineers on maneuvers until they started diving on the base and strafing all the planes on the air base.”
Roney described trying to pull undamaged planes away from planes that already were on fire while the Japanese fighters fired machine guns at them.
“I noticed there was a lot of concrete chipping up around me,” he said. “I realized it was the shell fire from the strafing fighters.”
Bernard L. Swenson, who has lived in Carson City for 17 years, was known as the “oil king” on board the battleship USS California. He was four floors down inside the ship when the first bombs struck.
“The room shook just like you were shaking a paper sack,” he said.
He saw the attacking planes through a porthole.
“At first we thought they were our planes just practicing — but they weren’t.”
Rosie Long did her part as a WAVE, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. She was stationed in San Diego at the same time as her companion, Howie Spreeman.
“These sailors would come in with no arms, no legs, no face. It was just so sad,” she said of the injured from Pearl Harbor. “I was very proud to be in the Navy and to serve my country.”
Roland Peachee and Les Smith were stationed on the same vessel — a repairship called the USS Rigel.
They joked about how the only weapons they had to return fire on the Japanese were their “forty-fives” — their .45-caliber handguns.
“And potatoes,” said Peachee. “We threw them at ’em, too.”
The men deployed their lifeboats to help pull wounded out of the water while bombs hit around them. One bomb, luckily a dud, landed on the forward part of the ship — right near Les Smith of Sparks.
“Do you know how many Smiths fought in World War II?” he asked. “A half a million. If it wasn’t for us Smiths, you guys would be speaking German or Japanese.”
Peachee said he still thinks about Pearl Harbor often.
“It’s on my mind every day,” he said. “Of course, I’m mentally unstable — that’s why I’m friendly with you,” he joked, punching Smith in the arm.
The 61st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor is Saturday.