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Pearl Harbor survivor shares experience with Gridley band headed to Hawaii
A mushrooming fireball amid debris. Billows of smoke pour out of a listing battleship.
These were some of the searing images students of the Gridley High School band saw this week during a presentation by Chico resident Arthur Wells, who survived the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
The presentation was timely for the students, who will travel to Hawaii in December to march in the 70th anniversary Pearl Harbor Day Parade, representing the state and the battleship USS California, one of seven ships sunk in the attack.
Wells, 89, gave a 35-minute presentation of photographs taken before and after the attack, and a recorded narrative he put together.
After hearing about the band's trip, Wells contacted teacher John Haeberle several months ago asking to visit the students.
One reason Wells wanted to visit the students was because Pearl Harbor has changed a lot in seven decades, and so "they would know what actually went on, with pictures and all," he said.
Wells was 19, a Marine, stationed on the USS Pennsylvania, which was dry-docked on Dec. 7 when the Japanese made the surprise attack.
Six Marines were killed and 16 wounded on the Pennsylvania, said Wells said, who was one of the wounded.
Wells joined the military in 1940 and boarded the Pennsylvania in April 1941. He stayed in Hawaii until September 1942 and served aboard the battleship New Mexico. He left the service in 1945.
Wells' presentation began with photographs of Pearl Harbor before the attack. A photo taken on a Japanese carrier showed an airplane preparing to take off for the strike.
"If we had hours of time to prepare, we would have given them a harder time," Wells said.
"When we heard the first explosion, someone said 'it's just like the Army to hold practice on Sunday morning,'" Wells said.
"Then, someone said, 'We've been attacked, we've been attacked!'"
Wells said there was nothing to do at first, except watch.
"I'd get interested in watching what went on and forget myself," he said. "I noticed the Oklahoma's mast getting closer to me. She capsized."
A plane aboard the Oklahoma broke loose and was floating in the water, and Wells noticed men scrambling over the ship's bottom, trying to get to safety.
Wells said he was about 100 feet above the water line at that point, and could see clearly into attacking planes' cockpits.
"I could see the expressions on the pilots' faces ... they were grinning," he said.
Torpedo planes continued to attack. The Oklahoma rolled and sank. The California "went straight down."
About 30 minutes after the attack began, Wells made his way farther down into the ship. He noticed a line of men passing ammunition.
"I joined the line," Wells said. "It felt better to have something to do and to fight back."
He recalled watching the battleship Nevada making its way into the harbor, swarmed by the Japanese.
Next, a loudspeaker aboard the Pennsylvania announced strafing and for the sailors and Marines to get "inboard."
"The next thing I knew, I was regaining consciousness," said Wells, noting a bomb had hit the ship. "Men were squirming as I tried to get up ... one grabbed my shirt, speckled red either from cordite or paint from the bulkhead.
"I was woozy. I felt like kind of a zombie. I knew I should go to sick bay."
He had suffered a head wound, and eventually wound up in the naval hospital.
A total of 2,390 people were killed and 1,196 were wounded at Pearl Harbor. Of those, the Navy lost 1,999, with 710 wounded; the Army lost 233, with 364 wounded; the Marines lost 109, with 9 wounded; and 49 civilians died and 530 were wounded.
Before leaving, Wells gave the students a piece of advice: "I encourage you kids, if you know anyone who was in the war, get them to talk about it."
The Gridley band will leave for Hawaii Dec. 4, perform alongside the Missouri Dec. 5 and March in the parade Dec. 7. The trip will be six days.