He witnessed bombing of Pearl Harbor

Published 12:19 pm Saturday, May 23, 2009

WINDSOR—Although it has been nearly 68 years since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, George Webster, a former U.S. Navy pilot, still remembers seeing his plane explode and burst into flames when a bomb struck the aircraft.

He had left the plane, on which he had spent the night with three members of his crew, only two hours earlier to go home to have breakfast with his wife and was returning to his station.

“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” said Webster. “They even fired at me as I drove towards the hanger. I abandoned my little car in record time.

“I have never been as frightened as I was on that 7th day in December, 1941.”

Webster recalled the events this week as Memorial Day, the day that Americans mourn the loss of millions of men and women who lost their lives defending our country approaches. “As many as 2,500 people died on Pearl Harbor that day,” he said. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

Webster, who turns 94 next month, witnessed the onset of America’s involvement in the war when Japan struck the island about 8 a.m. President Franklin Roosevelt later called it “a day of infamy.”

The young pilot’s squadron had been assigned to the Naval Air Station at Kanoehe Bay, on the island of Oahu, from which they trained and flew patrols. Because of the unrest between the United States and Japan, the planes were moored to buoys in the bay and had to be manned at all times by a four-man crew, including one pilot.

Webster was on his way back to the plane hanger to muster with the off-going watch.

After the Japanese made the first run, he said, and just before the low-level bombers came into view, the men lined up in front of the hanger, so the squadron commander could get a personnel count.

“When we saw the bombers heading for the hanger, the skipper yelled, ‘Everyone run for cover!’

“I didn’t have to be told twice,” he said.

Webster said he dropped down between two piles of sand that had been left over from some construction and tried to protect himself as well as he could.

At this point in his story, he grinned. “When you think back over these happenings, sometimes you remember something humorous,” he said and related the incident.

“I had just hidden myself between the piles of sand when I heard someone, I don’t know who, cry out, ‘Git out of the way and let someone run that kin run!’

“I was pretty scared, but had to laugh. Actually, though, it wasn’t a laughing matter,” he said. “The damage was devastating. The hanger and all of our aircraft, except for three planes out on patrol, were destroyed.”

“The worst thing was we had no way to defend ourselves. One man, Chief Aviation Ordinanceman John Finn, had the only keys to the ordinance locker where all the guns and ammunition were kept.

“He was able to get a mounted machine gun out by the time the low-level bombers came by, and is believed to inflicted damage to one of the bombers, although no reports of a bomber being shot down were confirmed.”

Finn did receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery, Webster said.

The next morning, Webster was on one of the surviving planes ordered to fly out of Ford Island, the Naval Air Station in Pearl Harbor, to seek out the Japanese fleet that had attacked them.

“We were armed with two aerial torpedoes and were ordered to attack if we sighted it,” Webster said. “But we did not locate any enemy ships.”

From this time on, Webster and his crew were to participate in dozens of search and reconnaissance flights, as well as bombing missions. For 30 months, having flown 186 missions in combat, he and his crew had been involved in numerous “impossible missions,” where they never knew what the outcome would be.

Webster, who retired as a Naval Commander, spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy.

“I enjoyed my time in the service, even with the war,” he said. “I enlisted in 1933 because I wanted to become a pilot. Times were hard when I was a youngster, and this was the best way I could think of to become one.”

Webster married his wife, Lillian, now 92, in 1936, and she has traveled with him as often as possible. They had quarters on the base at Kanoehe Bay and she also heard the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

After his retirement from the service, the couple settled in California, where Webster worked for the state for 12 years. “When I became 55, I retired from this job and we moved to Arizona.”

Three years ago, they moved to Virginia and settled near their son, George II, also a naval retiree, just a few miles from Windsor. Their other son, Richard, is a prison chaplain.

In addition to their sons, the couple has seven grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren and one great-greatgrandchild.

As for the reason he came through one of the bloodiest wars in history unscathed, he believes it was by the grace of God to help those not as fortunate as he.

“Lil and I became volunteers in some of the nursing homes in Yuma, Arizona,” he said.

“George plays the keyboard beautifully,” said Lillian. “He plays by ear, but he’s really good. We work together and entertain the nursing home residents.”

Lillian grinned, “I really can’t sing that well, but I’m the song leader.”

Webster said he doesn’t really like to talk about his experiences, and rarely mentions any medals he earned during the war. He does still like to fly and once bought a small two-seater Cessna 120.

“I got tired of it, though, and finally sold it,” he said.

His one experience with celebrities during his career came when he was living in California. He was involved in a test program for the Navy piloting a huge passenger plane from Burbank to Denver to Washington, D.C.

“Several times we transported a number of movie personalities, including Red Skelton and Gloria Swanson,” Webster said. “I didn’t meet them, though. I was busy piloting the plane.”