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Local vets experienced Pearl Harbor firsthand

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/06/19/02/1sFqXD.Em.138.jpeg|211
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    92-year-old Army veteran Gene Reinhardt’s “Pearl Harbor Survivor” hat lays on a newspaper from August 15, 1945, announcing the end of World War II. Reinhardt was on the island during the attack on Pearl Harbor more than 70 years ago.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/06/19/02/sQaRH.Em.138.jpeg|248
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

When they heard the first explosion, it sounded like a training exercise gone awry.

But Thomas “Gene” Reinhardt, 92, said when the second one came, shortly before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, he and the members of the U.S. Army 24th Signal Company knew it was something much worse.

“I heard the first bomb drop. I heard the second bomb drop,” he said. “But I saw the third bomb dropped that started World War II.”

Reinhardt, who lives in Belmont, is among a dwindling number of survivors who were on the island of Oahu when the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese.

The surprise assailment by fighter planes dropped bombs and torpedoes on U.S. forces over the course of two hours. Thousands of soldiers and sailors were killed, hundreds of U.S. planes destroyed, ships such as the USS Arizona were sunk and the naval fleet was grievously injured.

Though the U.S. had abstained from the ongoing, international conflict for more than two years, “ a date which will live in infamy” marked the country’s entrance into World War II.

The blackest smoke

Using his open hand as a representation of Oahu, the tips of Reinhardt’s fingers were the northern point of the island, the bottom of his palm Pearl Harbor. Reinhardt, who was 20 at the time, was in bed at the Schofield Barracks – the middle of his palm, about a quarter mile from Wheeler Field – when the first bombs dropped.

“We ran to the screened-in porch on the east side of the barracks,” he said, noting he was on the second of three floors. “We didn’t know it was the Japanese until we could see the red ball on the plane and side of the wings.

“Then we could see the bombs come out of the planes (over Wheeler Field),” Reinhardt said.

“We could see big balls of the blackest smoke. … A lot has left me, but points are embedded that you don’t forget.”

They had gathered out front when the Japanese flew over the barracks, strafing them with machine gun fire, Reinhardt said. He doesn’t believe there were fatalities where he was. He remembers an infantry unit roughly 200 yards to his left putting a machine gun on the roof and firing at the enemy planes.

The Japanese planes were flying close by. “I could see the man in the back with the machine gun,” Reinhardt said, adding he’s wished thousands of times he’d had a camera. “I can see him just as plain as day. I’ll never forget that.”

The 24th Signal Company was responsible for all the communications on the base at Schofield Barracks, Reinhardt said, and the rest of the day they worked “a battle station that was the telephone exchange.”

No inkling it was going to happen

Wesley Ruth was 28 on Dec. 7, 1941, and was having breakfast when he saw nearly 200 planes dropping bombs. Ruth, now 100 and a Matthews resident, recalls driving to the north end of the island trying to find out what was happening.

“I was about a quarter-mile from the Arizona and I saw the Arizona bombed. There were powder pellets about the size of my finger that flew that distance, from the ship to me, coming down on me just like snow.”

Worried the Japanese would spot his convertible and strafe him, Ruth said, he headed for the airfield and passed the clinic on his way. “I could see a number of dead bodies on the lawn.”

A pilot for an unarmed Navy photography squadron, Ruth reported to the airfield and was one of the first U.S. planes off the island. He and his co-pilot, radioman and three men in the back – armed only with Springfield rifles – were on a reconnaissance assignment: Fly the JRS-1 passenger plane 250 miles north, 10 miles east and report sightings of Japanese forces.

“I flew (at) about 1,000 feet so we could duck into the clouds,” Ruth said, noting they didn’t encounter anyone during the flight.

That mission later earned Ruth the Navy Cross for extraordinary bravery and heroism. On Ruth’s 100th birthday on Nov. 6, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., brought Ruth a U.S. flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol in Ruth’s honor.

“Today, and every day, we should be thankful for Commander Ruth and his fellow members of the Greatest Generation,” Pittenger said. “(They) stood up to tyranny, sacrificing so much so that we can enjoy the blessings of freedom and prosperity today.”

Fewer and fewer

Both Reinhardt and Ruth went on to become decorated service members. Reinhardt became a cryptologist and spent nearly five years in the Pacific theater.

Ruth spent 20 years in the service, serving everywhere from Latin America to Greenland, and became a Navy commander.

Reinhardt had previously been a member of the WWII Last Man Club of Gaston County, a group that gave military rites at veterans’ funerals and got together once a year for a meal, he said.

But the group is no longer active, much like the congressionally-recognized Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which disbanded following the 70th anniversary of the attacks in 2011.

“There are so few of us we couldn’t get together again,” Reinhardt said. “Attrition took care of it.”

To his knowledge, Reinhardt is the only Pearl Harbor survivor in Gaston County. On Saturday, he will join about 20 local WWII vets “and their wives, if they’re living,” for a catered dinner at the county police headquarters in Gastonia.

While Pearl Harbor was just one day, other veterans – such as a friend who was at Iwo Jima – deserve far more credit, Reinhardt said.

“It seems the attention is focused on my experience, rather than the thousands of others who had it a hundred times worse than we did.”

As the number of Pearl Harbor survivors and WWII vets decreases, Reinhardt said he worries the history of their experiences will be lost with them. “We’re dying off so slowly. … There just gets to be fewer and fewer of us.”

Saturday will be “just another day” for Ruth, who said he didn’t have special plans, but noted he’s previously given many speeches and interviews on Dec. 7.

Ruth believes books such as Michael Gannon’s “Pearl Harbor Betrayed” has helped to capture both fact and personal accounts, but feels sure some of the experience will be lost with his generation.

As Reinhardt, Ruth and their fellows are called upon less often to speak of their experiences at schools and clubs, Reinhardt hopes people will do one thing.

“Remember Pearl Harbor. It kind of chokes me up a bit to say that, but it can’t be helped,” Reinhardt said. “Don’t forget.”

Trenda: 704-358-5089; Twitter: @htrenda
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