Day of Infamy: Command chief shares grandfather's Pearl Harbor experience

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Joseph S. Pesek, U.S. Army Air Forces
  • 403rd Wing Public Affairs

Today is the 77th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. This day has special meaning for one Air Force Reserve Citizen Airman here.

Chief Master Sgt. Amanda J. Stift, 403rd Wing command chief master sergeant and 413th Flight Test Group superintendent, is the granddaughter of Joseph S. Pesek, a World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces and U.S. Air Force. Her grandfather was a technical sergeant stationed at Hickam Field, Hawaii, during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

According to Stift, her grandfather rarely ever spoke about the events of that day.

“It brought back too many memories and heartache of the friends he lost,” she said.

However, at the request of his sons in 1995, he wrote about his experience that day.

Pesek, raised in Auburn, N.Y., enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1936, transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1939, was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943, and stayed with the Air Force when it became a separate service in 1947. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1960. He passed away at the age of 97 on Nov. 29, 2015 – just after his 70th wedding anniversary to Georgianna “Baba” Pesek, 95, and just before the 74th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The chief shares her grandfather’s personal account of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which led to the United States’ entry into World War II. In total, 2,335 American servicemen were killed and another 1,143 were wounded that day.

By Tech. Sgt. Joseph S. Pesek, U.S. Army Air Forces

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, I got up shortly after 6 a.m. and walked to the Noncommissioned Officer’s Club for breakfast, which was adjacent to the Pearl Harbor Naval Base. At the time I was a technical sergeant in the 5th Bomber Group and sharing half of a duplex government house with Master Sgt. Joe Barrett, 4th Reconnaissance Squadron. After breakfast, I headed for the bus stop to wait for the 8:05 a.m. bus to take me to Honolulu where I was to play golf at the Wai Lai Golf Course.

While sitting there on a bench, I noticed a large flight of aircraft approaching from the northwest flying at an altitude of about 15,000 feet and at a distance which made identification impossible. I had seen similar flights come in preceding the arrival of U.S. aircraft carriers and just assumed another of our carriers was coming into port at Pearl Harbor. They approached at a point almost due north of where I was sitting and suddenly began to peel off in steep dives into the harbor. I watched a large torpedo-shaped bomb drop from the first plane followed by a huge explosion.

As one after the other dropped their torpedoes, terrific explosions and flames were plainly visible. At the time, I thought it strange but possible that the Navy was conducting some sort of exercise and possibly destroying something over in the west locks where the target ship Utah and other old ships were moored. As the first plane pulled up only several hundred feet to my left with machine guns blazing, I saw the Rising Sun insignia on the wings and knew we were under attack.

He was flying over Hickam Air Field at an altitude of approximately 150 feet. A young boy was waiting at the bus stop with me, and I told him to get home as fast as he could. By that time, clouds of black smoke were rising over the harbor and planes were pulling up across Hickam toward the flight line with machine guns firing. When I got back to my quarters, Sergeant Joe Barret was just getting up to see what all the noise was about. I yelled to him to move it as we were under attack.

After throwing on a pair of coveralls over my civvies, we took off running toward the consolidated barracks and flight line. By this time, things were hectic, and we had to hit the ground every few minutes due to low-flying strafing planes. As we were crossing the parade ground headed for the hangar line, we ran into Master Sgt. Dave Jacobson and three other guys trying to set up an old World War I water-cooled machine gun, and they were having problems with the tripod.

Joe and I both had prior hitches in the infantry so we had it assembled and in operational order quickly. I believe that had there not been a lull in the strafing, we would have stayed right there, but I guess it was not to be.

It wasn't long after we left that Dave and his crew took a direct hit that blew them to bits. The only way they identified Dave was by finding a section of his finger with his ring still in place. Page 83, Dec. 7, 1941, "The Air Force Story," states that Dave was hit while changing a tire on the flight line. This may be so if he left the parade ground after I saw him there, but I doubt it. I know the gun we set up took a direct hit and those around it were killed instantly.

As we ran toward the hangar, we stayed close to the barracks so we wouldn't be out in the open as the planes were again overhead. There I saw another friend of mine, Sgt. George Bolan lying face up, undoubtedly killed by concussion as there was no blood or signs of cuts that I could see. Yet his face was turning dark, possibly from broken blood vessels. When we got to the hangar, Joe went to his plane, and I went into Hangar 7. They were passing out rifles from the armament room so I got in line thinking at least it may be some protection later on. By the time I reached the head of the line, all rifles and helmets had been given out. I then started to carry canisters of 50 caliber ammo out of the armament room so they could be loaded into any of the aircraft still in commission. Several minutes later, I was returning for another canister when someone coming out said all the ammo was out, so I turned around and headed out the large sliding doors. Just then the hangar took a hit from a large bomb dropped from a high altitude flight. It felt as though the whole hangar was lifted from the ground. The next thing I knew, I was picking myself up off the ramp between Hangars 7 and 11, my back covered with white plaster blown out from the hangar.

Someone ran up to me and handed me a pint of whiskey. I took a gulp holding the bottle with both hands and although I don't remember being scared, my hands shook so much I almost dropped the bottle before giving it back. Next, I went to the adjacent Hangar 9 where Sgts. Ed Caton and JP Bock were. For a little while, there was another lull so we just sat and talked. I remember JP smoking a cigarette so fast it was like a fuse burning with a flame at the end of it. In about 15 minutes, the planes were back and Ed and another guy were kneeling on the flight line side of the hangar, firing at them as they flew along the row of hangars. Once they passed, I took off across the runway toward the John Rogers Airport which was located where the present Honolulu International Airport is now. Before I got to the middle of the runway, I saw low-flying aircraft approaching from the east, and I hit the ground again. While waiting for them to pass, someone hit the ground next to me and said, "Where are you headed, soldier?" I looked up and it was Brig. Gen. Jacob H. Rudolph, commander of the Eighteenth Bombardment Wing. I said, "I'm not sure where I'm going, but I know it's away from the hangars."

I got up and started to run again and almost made the edge of the runway when three more planes came at me. They were so low I could see the ground kicking up where their machine-gun bullets were hitting. I hit the ground again covering my head with my hands. It seemed as though a thousand things passed through my mind mostly of home and my family. I could not believe it when those three planes passed right over without hitting me.

I looked up as they passed and thought the sky never looked bluer. I didn't even notice it at the time, but I tore my fingernails down until they were bleeding, trying to make a hole in the runway, I guess. Across the runway, I found a hole about 4 feet deep and 10 feet across which I dove into and, for the first time since the bombing began, I felt like I had made it. I was in the pit, which I learned later was dug for a base perimeter security exercise, for no more than five minutes when one of our large refueling trucks pulled up and stopped with one of his tires flat from being hit by one of the strafers. I could just picture another strafer hitting the truck and filling my hole with flaming fuel. I jumped from my security blanket and was out in the open again.

Finally, the driver of the truck, a kid from my squadron, and I decided things were quieting down. He went back to the motor pool and had them bring out a huge jack and for at least the next hour, I helped him change the wheel. I then went back across the runway to the 5th Bomber Group Personnel Office where a bunch of guys I knew had gathered. When Sgt. Mike Kocan saw me, he said that he went by my quarters earlier and thought I had been killed. He told me that a small bomb hit up against the curb in front of my house and blew right through it. When I finally got back to my house (Tuesday night) I found that my wrist watch, knocked from the top of my dresser into the open drawer, had the only piece of glass in the house that wasn't broken, including the tiles in the bathroom.

No one slept the night of Dec. 7, 1941. I went over to the operations building and listened to reports coming in out from the command post that had been set up there. I have read many accounts and talked to a lot of eyewitnesses and survivors and stories differ. Many people were still in bed when the attack first began and saw things a little differently according to where they were at first sightings. One of the few who I know, who was also up and in a good spot to observe things was my group commanding officer, then Col. William H. Farthing (who retired as a major general). He and I traded experiences later and our stories as to what we saw and what took place in those first few minutes were exactly the same.