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Pearl Harbor: They Were There

By Patricia Richards McClure

On December 7, 2001, Governor Bob Wise (left) hosted a ceremony at the state Culture Center to honor West Virginia servicemen who had been at Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier.
At the time, it was estimated that 84 of the original 127 West Virginia Pearl Harbor survivors were still living; about 70 attended the event.

As we mark the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II, the “greatest generation” is quickly dwindling in number. As of this writing, there may be only three remaining West Virginians who were at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day: Wetzel R. Sanders and Henry H. Sloan, both Army veterans, and a Navy man, who wants to remain anonymous; he’s referred to as “unnamed sailor.”

Except for his military years, Wetzel Sanders has spent his whole life in and around Lincoln County, attending grade school at Midkiff and then Guyan Valley High School. After a couple of years, he went to East Lynn in Wayne County, where his father had a coal business. Working as a truck driver for his father, he loaded at one end and unloaded at the other. It was back-breaking work.

Joining the Army just before turning 18 was not exactly his way of running away, but it did offer an escape from the drudgery of manual labor. His enlistment record shows he was assigned to the “Hawaiian Department,” so he knew where he was headed. To a West Virginia kid accustomed to hard work, peacetime Hawaii seemed like paradise.

Wetzel went through basic training at Camp Malakole, where he was stationed with the 251st Coast Artillery Anti-Aircraft Regiment. His experience as a truck driver suited him well. He drove a truck for soldiers on leave in addition to being a 40-mm gunner. Driving the leave truck on Saturday nights, he routinely picked up soldiers who spent late evenings in Honolulu and planned to sleep in on Sundays.

On the Sunday morning of the attack, he kept hearing explosions, so he started his truck and headed for the harbor. The Army’s response was unorganized and chaotic; the soldiers with him tried to shoot down Japanese planes with what guns they had. Wetzel remembers being strafed three times and having seven holes shot in his truck. When the ammunition ran dry, he and others went down to the water to join the rescue efforts.

Wetzel recalls that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had called President Roosevelt and asked if there might be a bombing at Pearl Harbor on December 5, 6, or 7. Wetzel remembers that his unit was supposed to be on maneuvers at the time, but the maneuvers had been called off. Had they gone as planned, he says matter-of-factly, “We would have taken care of those planes.”

Somewhere along the way, Wetzel took a piece of shrapnel to the knee. He was the only soldier in a hospital filled with injured sailors, most with more severe wounds. His most vivid memory from that day is the sight and sound of bedridden seamen in the Navy hospital calling out for their mothers. He was keenly aware that many would never see their families again.

Wetzel tells of a first sergeant who didn’t like soldiers from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, calling them “hillbillies” and implying they might as well have been killed. Such treatment drove him to survive at all costs. Survive he did, and the grit of the 18 year old is still apparent in the voice and demeanor of a man now well into his 90s.

After Pearl Harbor, Wetzel spent more than three years in the Pacific and was “all over the place.” In 1942, he went to the Fiji Islands, not for combat, but for infantry training. He remembers huge pineapples going to waste; because of the war, no one was cultivating them. “I saw it all,” he says. “At Bougainville, I buried Japanese dead with a bulldozer.”

He finally encountered a colonel from Morgantown who determined that this West Virginia boy had been in continuous service long enough. The colonel ordered Wetzel to Guadalcanal, where he caught a boat and headed for the states.

Wetzel vividly recalls the preparations for the impending invasion of Japan’s mainland, which he expected to occur around November 1, 1945. To this day, he doesn’t question dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima or Nagasaki, which ended the war in August 1945, considering the number of U.S. military and Japanese casualties anticipated for the invasion.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.