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This month in history: Pearl Harbor attacked; World War II vets remember

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- "At 20 minutes to eight, the first bomb dropped and it was the loudest sound I've heard in my life," said Stan Lieberman, Pearl Harbor survivor and World War II aerial photographer. "Their target was the barracks at Wheeler Field, (Hawaii). That first one landed behind the barracks and hit a dirt pile.

"That was the bomb intended for me," he said.

Two Pearl Harbor survivors recently shared their experiences of Dec. 7, 1941, which hurled America into the greatest human conflict in history that began in Europe two years prior.

Steve Warren, who moved to South Dakota after retiring in Texas, and Mr. Lieberman, who was once stationed at what was then Rapid City Army Airfield before it became Ellsworth Air Force Base, offered firsthand accounts of the Pearl Harbor attack at a lecture recently held in Rapid City.

Mr. Warren, who enlisted in the Navy in early 1941, anticipated anything but war when he arrived in Pearl Harbor just two days before the surprise attack.

"We had visions of hula girls," he said, with a laugh. "Hundreds of them."
In fact, his vessel wasn't even outfitted for combat.

"I was assigned to a sea-going yacht," he said. "We didn't have a gun - not even a pistol on board."

The yacht, USS Elvida, was scheduled to be converted into a combat vessel at a later date.

The Sunday morning attack started with the Japanese forces eliminating air assets.

"Due to the threat of sabotage by Japanese living in Hawaii, the aircraft were left in the open, lined up wingtip-to-wingtip," said Ryan Warner, 28th Bomb Wing historian. "When the Japanese attacked Wheeler Field, Col. William Flood, (Wheeler Field commander), said he was close enough to 'see the smiles on their faces' as the low flying planes strafed the helpless aircraft parked in the open."

Wheeler Field

In 1941, Mr. Lieberman was assigned to Wheeler Field, Hawaii, in the Army Air Corps and was attending aerial photography school.

At first, he and fellow Airmen at Wheeler Field thought the nearby aircraft were U.S. Navy planes simply buzzing their barracks.

He recalled being close enough to see the distinctive insignia of America's newest foe.

"The planes were flying at about rooftop level right in front of us," he said. "Then I saw the red ball (on the fuselage).

"The Japanese were smart. They hit the fighter planes first before Pearl Harbor."

His fellow Pearl Harbor survivor agreed.

"They hit our air fields hard," said Mr. Warren. "That's all the resistance we could have (sent)."

Mr. Lieberman and other Airmen at Wheeler Field resisted the attack the only way they could by acquiring some small-arms from a nearby armory.

"We went downstairs and found rifles, pistols and a .50-caliber," he said. "We told the guy down there to give us the guns and he said, 'I can't give them to you without an officer's signature.'"

He said they took the guns anyway.

Mr. Lieberman said his hastily formed gun emplacement crew only managed to get a few rounds off before the .50-caliber overheated.

"We found out later it was water-cooled," he said.

The Harbor

Colonel Flood was not the only person who was close enough to see the face of the enemy. Mr. Warren recalled seeing them right after the first explosions woke him up after a late Saturday night poker game.

"I went topside and right there in front of me was a (Japanese) plane," he said. "His (rear) gunner was looking directly at me about telephone pole high and 40 to 50 feet in front of me. He didn't swing his gun around quick enough to fire at me though."

Mr. Warren said he and fellow shipmates evacuated their vessel and went to another ship to help resist the attack.

"We went to another ship tied alongside us, the USS Ash, and found a gun but it had no ammo," he said. "After all, why would there be ammo when the (ship) captain was about to do an inspection?"

Eventually, Mr. Warren and his crew acquired ammunition and began to shoot back at the enemy aircraft.

"I believe our crew claimed to have got one," he said. "But then again, everyone I know that had a gun claimed they shot a plane down," he said with a chuckle.

In fact, only 29 of the 300 enemy planes were shot down by American forces that day.

"Far more stories exist than the confirmed 29 losses for the Japanese," said Mr. Warner. "During the defense of Wheeler Field, three pajama-clad Army Airmen, including 2nd Lt. Phillip Rasmussen, took to the skies in P-36 Hawk aircraft and inflicted 10 of the confirmed losses."

The Aftermath

After the attack, Mr. Warren and Mr. Lieberman helped where they could.

"I learned what the word 'triage' meant that day," said Mr. Warren, as he recalled the attack's aftermath.

He paused before continuing his story.

"I helped with the dying ... can't talk about it much."

Mr. Lieberman said he remembered the blatant destruction.

"When the attack was over, we bulldozed everything on that flightline," he said.

"Everything was wrecked. There was nothing left."

The realization of what America had endured soon hit him.

"Monday night I was lying in bed and listening to the radio," said Mr. Lieberman. "It was the most memorable talk ... it was President Roosevelt talking about the day of infamy.
And we declared war.

"That meant a lot to us guys on the ground."

Mr. Warner said there are lessons to be learned from this chapter of America's history.

"Quite possibly the most evident, although sometimes overlooked, lesson from the attack was the failure of the Japanese to strike a crippling blow against American morale. Contrarily, the attack proved the exact opposite," he said.

According to Mr. Warner's data, America's WW II veterans are passing away at about 1,000 per day; therefore, the nation is losing what he calls "a vital channel" to America's history.

The official Pearl Harbor survivors Web site can be found at

Editor's Note: This is part two of a series. The final piece will consist of the experience of another local combat aviator from WW II.