Remembering Pearl Harbor: Veterans recall defining moments from WWII

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KAILUA-KONA — A soldier’s saving grace in wartime can assume several forms: a skilled battlefield medic, a heroic brother in arms or even sheer fortune of circumstance.

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KAILUA-KONA — A soldier’s saving grace in wartime can assume several forms: a skilled battlefield medic, a heroic brother in arms or even sheer fortune of circumstance.

A bout with strep throat might have saved John Ross before the then-teenager was set to ship out from Hawaii with the USS Saratoga to soften Japanese defenses prior to the invasion of Iwo Jima.

And it was surely a fist — thrown during the heat of battle between compatriots on the USS Gambier Bay — that spared the life of Robert Paddock in October 1944.

The two veterans, who fought under the same flag, met decades later in Hawaii, where it all began. Now good friends who get together at least once per week at Kona Brewing Company, they recounted memories from World War II — arguably the most influential conflict in the history of Western Civilization.

A fateful fight

“It all came to a close for me up on the flight deck directing planes to battle,” Paddock said.

Paddock, who was discharged as a aviation machinist’s mate third class, led a catapult crew in the Pacific. It was a volatile position in which he had 4,000 pounds of air pressure at his disposal to propel aircraft to the required takeoff speed in a mere 9 feet. And thus, there were safety restrictions on how many planes could be launched in a certain time period using only so much pressure.

The officer in charge of the catapult, who lacked the training Paddock received as a member of catapult school, ordered Paddock to increase the pressure during a mission in early October. Had Paddock done so, not only would the plane and its pilot have been lost, but the ship would have endured catastrophic damage.

“I can’t do that,” Paddock told the officer, refusing a direct order.

An argument ensued and turned physical. It ended with Paddock locked in the brig.

The next day, Navy brass handed down a non-judicial punishment, referred to in the Navy as a Captain’s Mast. The authorities determined Paddock was correct in his assertion that increasing pressure would have been disastrous. But he struck an officer. His days on the Gambier Bay were through.

He was shipped back to Hawaii and eventually reassigned and put to work at Ford Island.

Roughly two weeks after Paddock’s departure, on Oct. 25, 1944, in the Battle off Samar in the Philippines, the USS Gambier Bay, nicknamed the Kaiser Coffin, became exactly that for not only the officer Paddock fought, but more than two-thirds of the ship’s crew.

“These Kaiser Coffins, you take a shell in one part of the ship, it floods the whole thing,” Paddock said. “It wouldn’t have sunk a real Navy ship with locked compartments in the hull. I lost all of my friends. It was a really bad deal.”

Paddock, now 94, can’t recall the name of the officer, and had no particular liking for the man at the time. But in his near century on earth, Paddock said there’s arguably never been a more significant figure in his life.

Sick bay

John Land Ross, known as Captain Jack on Hawaii Island, has always found his middle name a bit ironic, as he’s spent as little time on land as possible during his 90 years of life.

But after boot camp, right before he was to take to the open ocean for the first time as a soldier in the early months of 1945, he came down with a nasty case of strep throat.

Fearing contagion and a host of complications from the infection that included rheumatic fever, Navy doctors sidelined Ross, keeping him docked while his shipmates set sail.

“I wanted to go and thought I’d be fine,” Ross said. “I just couldn’t swallow.”

His ship, the USS Saratoga, departed without him on a mission to knock out fighters at Iwo Jima in preparation for the eventual invasion of the island. While at sea, the vessel encountered a hell storm.

“It took five kamikazes and seven bomb hits,” Ross said. “Two boiler rooms flooded with oil. The flight deck was bombed up and the hangar deck was burned out. There was a hole in the side of the boat you could have driven a Greyhound Bus through.”

The ship escaped and made it back to Pearl Harbor, but not without it’s share of casualties.

Ross finished WWII in one piece and went on to serve in the Korean War, eventually retiring as an aviation boatswain’s mate first class.

Then and now

Ross and Paddock, who were both brought to Hawaii by the Japanese Imperial Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor, each decided to make their homes here in later years.

They didn’t meet until long after the war’s end, but have been friends now for more than three decades, and are each part of a social group that meets Thursdays at Kona Brewing Company for a few slices and a few laughs.

The group even has its own T-shirts, replete with the abbreviation of their handle “WJDGAS,” which stands for “We just don’t give a (expletive).”

The well-earned, humorous nonchalance with which the men approach life in their twilight years stands in stark contrast to the rigid code of honor and responsibility they felt when war beckoned in the Pacific 75 long years ago.

Ross was only 15 at the time, and had to look Pearl Harbor up in an atlas the day following the news of Japan’s attack, but he had planned to join the Navy ever since he was 10.

His uncle, a member of the Navy himself, took Ross to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., where he caught his first glimpse of the Saratoga.

After working on tow boats in the Pacific Northwest throughout high school, Ross joined the war effort at the age of 17 on a cradle enlistment, meaning his parents had to sign his enlistment papers. He said convincing them wasn’t difficult.

“They just understood,” Ross said. “Joining was the thing to do.”

Western states were gripped by fear in the early days of the war, Ross explained.

In Seaside, Ore., Ross recalled barbed wire lining beaches where trenches were dug in anticipation of a Japanese invasion. Even spending time on the water in his capacity on tow boats required a certificate with a fingerprint and a photo ID.

Across the country, a 19-year-old Paddock was in the middle of his second year of college in New London, Conn., when the course of history was forever altered on a Sunday in early December.

“On Monday morning, 13 of us guys from the college went down to the Navy yard to apply,” Paddock said. “They wouldn’t take us. The war had just started. They said you guys go back to college and finish.”

They acquiesced and returned to school, but Paddock and his companions grew more restless with each passing month.

“During the summer, we kept thinking we can’t just stay here. We wanted to get out there and get going on the thing,” Paddock said. “As soon as the summer was finished, I applied for the Navy again and got in in 1942. We didn’t think too much about dying. That was the way we had to do.”

A different Hawaii

Paddock and Ross painted a picture of Hawaii from a soldier’s perspective in the mid-1940s, years before statehood.

Military men took a ferry to Old Fleet Landing, where they’d board the train cars of what they called the Wabash Cannonball, which would whisk them to downtown Honolulu. From there, they’d trek on foot to Waikiki, where the nightlife had begun to flourish.

Back then, it was mostly tattoo parlors and brothels, as Ross recalled. It was also a place to imbibe. Ross, who was discharged at 19, still unable to legally buy a beer, said the alcohol flowed on Oahu in those days.

Now, however, Hawaii is far different — more developed, more calm and with fewer racial tensions.

“It’s not even the same place,” said Paddock, who bought the first house in the Pines 1 development on Hawaii Island and has lived there ever since.

Both veterans agreed one of the greatest blessings has been their ability to intermingle with residents of Japanese descent, putting to bed old grudges through a depth of forgiveness on both sides.

“You accepted people at face value in Hawaii,” Ross explained of the years following the war.

Paddock returned to Hawaii as an employee of Texaco, working in the gasoline business. He worked with several Japanese citizens who were shipped to California and interned at the outbreak of the war, losing their homes and all their property.

When they returned to Hawaii upon their release, they were never reimbursed for what the United States government seized. But Paddock said he never felt any animosity from them as an American veteran.

“There was a lot of forgiveness on both sides,” he said. ” (Many of them) became great friends. It didn’t matter they were Japanese. A man was a man.”

Ross had a daughter who eventually fell in love with a Japanese man, uniting his family with the Japanese race through marriage. And that man’s father became one of Ross’s best friends for many years before passing away at the age of 97.

But the outreach process for Ross began long before that. In the late 1960s, he took a Japanese crew out on his boat for a billfishing tournament, eventually raising Japan’s flag on his mast so his passengers could snap a photo.

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“I said that if my buddies could see me now, they’d have called me a son of a gun,” Ross laughed. “But I thought, ‘Let them put it up.’ These guys had been serving their country. Just like I did.”

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.

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