COURT HOUSEâ€” “December 7, 1941 â€” a date which will live in infamy,” proclaimed President Franklin D. Roosevelt before asking Congress to declare war on Japan after its blitz attack on American naval forces at Pearl Harbor.
Today, 64 years later, the catastrophic attack that pulled the United States into World War II has been lost on many of today’s younger people.
To them Pearl Harbor equates to a 2001 drama, loosely based on actual events.
“I saw that movie, dude. Brad Pitt was a beast in it,” said Sean Russell, a sophomore from Middle Township High School. Pitt wasn’t in the film.
“We attacked the Japanese, right?” said another.
Edward T. Smith of Court House was 21 years old when he volunteered for the draft and was stationed at Pearl Harbor as part of the army’s 98th anti-aircraft unit.
U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews (N.J.) tapped the 86-year-old Smith to speak aboard the U.S.S. New Jersey in Camden today in observance of Pearl Harbor Day.
“I don’t volunteer for these kinds of things. I’m better as a rear-ranked soldier doing my job, but there is no one else left,” explained Smith.
“Not too many years ago I used to go to a reunion and there was a good crowd there and now when I go, I feel like I’m by myself.”
Smith is the only Pearl Harbor veteran in Cape May County as far as he knows.
“There were two other guys in the area, but they either moved or passed away,” he said.
Cpl. Smith had been stationed in Hawaii for about six months and was out jogging early on the morning of the attacks.
He was preparing to fight in a welterweight boxing match later that day to defend his undefeated record.
“I volunteered for a year to get my service over with. I had prospects of a job on the west coast,” explained Smith.
Around 8 a.m., the Japanese attacked the harbor, intent on destroying U.S. airfields, port facilities, and warships with the goal of controlling the Pacific Ocean.
In peacetime, ammunition was stored away and not readily accessible, leaving the Pacific Fleet completely vulnerable to attack.
“What are you gonna do when you have no ammo, but duck? The Japanese flew so low that you could see the pilots,” said Smith.
His unit, located adjacent to the Wheeler Army Airfield, had about 300 rounds of ammo in a supply room that they rushed to drag out.
They fired automatic rifles at the enemy, eventually shooting down the first of about 29 Japanese planes that succumbed to fire.
“They did pretty good for as low as they were flying and only lost a small number compared to the hundreds that took part in the attack,” said Smith.
About two hours later, the attacks ended with the Pacific fleet in disarray, but not completely destroyed.
The Japanese failed to destroy important maintenance facilities, critical fuel supplies, the Pacific Fleet submarine force, and three carriers, which were not at Pearl Harbor during the attack.
As a result, the repair shops enabled rapid restoration of the debilitated fleet and the returning carriers allowed for the first counter attack on Japanese soil and aided in the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway, decisive United States victories during World War II.
Smith stayed in Hawaii until 1943 and then returned to the mainland and transferred into the armored infantry.
He went on to make Staff Sergeant and took part in the invasion of Sicily and other battles in Italy until the war ended in 1945.
Smith moved to this county from Freehold in the late 1980s after retiring as a traffic manager for a perfume company in New York City.
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