Wait, I need to back up here.
Over the holidays, my aunt Hilda Tarlecky handed me a newspaper that had a story marking the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. She thought I’d be interested in talking to the man whose picture was at the top of Page 1, a longtime friend of hers named Jerry Winslow.
An attack survivor, Jerry had been interviewed by The Daily Record of Coatesville in southeastern Pennsylvania. The story, under the headline “The Day Still Lives in Infamy: Pearl Harbor Remembered,” ran Dec. 3, 1991. At the time, Jerry lived in neighboring Downingtown, my hometown.
Aunt Hilda, who is my mom’s older sister, and Jerry’s wife, Lorraine, were in the Women’s Club together and loved to sew, their hands turning out fine needlework and quilting. They lived only about a half-mile apart and liked to trade cooking recipes. Lorraine died in 2010.
My aunt was a week shy of 92 when she gave me Jerry’s story during a family party just before Christmas. In my many years of interviewing veterans for The Morning Call in Allentown, I’d done stories on 13 Pearl Harbor survivors, or just 12 percent of all the war stories I’d written.
I was intrigued, so last week I called Jerry, who is 99 years old and now lives in Kennett Square. He sounded pleased to hear from me and was eager to talk. He had grown up in Chicago, attended a Catholic high school and was drafted. The Army sent him to Hawaii, where he was a private with the 41st Coast Artillery at Fort Kamehameha.
The base had coastal gun batteries for the defense of Pearl Harbor. Jerry’s job was to help load 8-inch guns. He wasn’t thrilled to be there.
“I had no use for the Army,” he said. “I didn’t give a darn.”
Early Sunday, Dec. 7, Jerry went to church and then ate pancakes at the mess hall. Only three or four other guys were there. The others were sleeping off a long night of drinking and carousing.
Suddenly, there was noise outside. Jerry and the others with him in the mess hall ran to the door and opened it.
“Down the main drag of the island, these planes were coming down, almost touching the ground. I didn’t know they were Japanese planes, didn’t have the faintest idea. I had watched the Navy go out the day before and thought it was a war game, so I was waving at these Japanese planes. One guy flew close to me, and he turned his head. Did he wave back at me? I’ve often wondered when I look back. I know he turned to look. I think he was bewildered, trying to see what was waving at him.
“Somebody grabbed me and said hey, you stupid so and so, the Japanese are attacking us!”
Jerry ran to the barracks to alert the other soldiers.
“They were all dead drunk, a bunch of bums. I’m yelling at them: ‘We’re being attacked, we’re being attacked!’ And all of a sudden all these things began to be thrown at me, pillows, shoes, I never saw so much stuff going through the air – and the language!
“But then, one of the planes came over and strafed the barracks. I’ll never forget it for as long as I live – det-det-det-det. I looked up and saw these holes in the corrugated tin roof. And these guys who were yelling and screaming at me, everybody looked up and realized within a hundredth of a second that it was true.”
A sergeant smashed the barracks locker that held their Springfield rifles. They went outside and fired at the Zero fighters.
“We were all in our skivvies, running around like mad. The Japanese kept strafing. We fired at them with our Springfields. They were old-fashioned rifles, but they were good, they were accurate. I fired mine so much, the barrel got hot.”
As the battle raged, Jerry saw something that still disturbs him. A few enemy planes were shot down, one near the mess hall, and he watched as Americans pounced on the injured pilot.
“Guys were pulling the pilot out of the plane and doing bad things to him. To pull them out of the planes and take them apart while they were still alive!
“I remember that night we were settling down, getting a little chow. I couldn’t eat because I remembered what they did. [But] I had no love for the Japanese. They were destroying my life; they were destroying my buddies.”
Jerry and others from his base were trucked to the northern part of the island and put up barbed wire on the beaches, anticipating an invasion that never came. Jerry was surprised by that.
“The Japanese could have walked onto that island, took it right over.”
Later, Jerry was sent back to the States to Officer Candidate School and spent the rest of the war as a lieutenant in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific islands. He went home to Chicago, worked in a Sinclair Oil Corp. research lab and got married. He and Lorraine had four daughters and moved to Pennsylvania.
Looking back on the Pearl Harbor attack, Jerry tried to find the words to describe the confusion and terror.
“Your brain doesn’t work right,” he said. “You try to analyze what’s happening, but you can’t pull things apart. You’re upset, I guess. All I could think was: I’m not going home. There’s a war on.”