Local Pearl Harbor veterans recall day of infamy
December 8, 2006
Sixty-five years ago today, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, creating a defining moment that would go down in history as the event that caused America to enter World War II.
The attack, which killed more than 2,000 military members and approximately 70 civilians, profoundly affected many lives including three retired veterans who currently live in the area surrounding Fort Belvoir.
Today these men, all survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack, meet every Wednesday for lunch and jokingly call themselves Retired Old Men Eating Out, or the ROMEOs.
'This is no drill'
Retired Navy Capt. Norman Lancaster was commissioned at the age of 27. He was stationed on the USS Phoenix in Pearl Harbor when he witnessed the attack.
"I was shaving, getting ready to go to Waikiki for a swim and I heard planes pull into a dive mode and I looked out my porthole and saw the first bomb drop," said Lancaster. "I said to my roommate, 'Get up Dave, the Army is putting on a show this morning.'"
Normally, the Army sent out a dawn patrol as a precautionary measure. Sometimes the Army planes would drop a water bomb as a drill.
"I thought they had just dropped a water bomb and it had splashed up. About this time they hit the USS Arizona with a torpedo ... and it really caused a mushroom cloud to come up simultaneously with oil, smoke and everything," Lancaster recalled.
Still, the Navy officer didn't realize the fleet was under attack. "I said, 'they're really putting on a show this morning,'"
It wasn't until a Japanese plane flew right past Lancaster's porthole that he realized an attack was under way.
"The plane came right by my porthole, just even with the boat, and I said 'Army hell, this is the rising sun, this is no drill,'" he said.
"Everybody was shooting," said Lancaster. "I don't think anybody really knew who [shot down] what, except on the final run. Three planes were coming back and I think it was the Shaw destroyer and the Phoenix that had started moving out ... we got all three. Whether the Shaw got them all or we got them together I don't know."
The day's events changed Lancaster's life, and he still vividly remembers some of the most tragic moments.
"I think the most memorable thing I saw was on the [battleships], which were being attacked, up in the masts 110 to 120 feet above the water [there were] machine gun nests," he said. "The men climbed up into these and eventually it got too hot and too smoky. They were trying to jump from there into the water. By this time the water was covered in [burning oil and smoke.] Some of them were lucky enough to hit the burning water; others hit the deck."
Despite the tragedy of the day's events, Lancaster said it could have been worse.
"I guess I'm the sort of person that thinks everything happens for the best," he said. "I think that if it was going to happen, [it was best that it happened when it did] because if they had come later we would have had many more casualties."
Lancaster, who had only planned to serve a year in the Navy, served through the entire war and went on to spend a total of 35 years in the Navy. He served in various jobs in the National Capital Area, including the Pentagon, and retired as a captain at the age of 61.
'An earth-shaking experience'
Retired Navy Capt. Frank Costagliola served on the Phoenix with Lancaster.
"On the morning of Dec. 7, I remember getting up around 7 [a.m.] and I was standing at my wash basin, finishing shaving when I heard the ship's announcing system calling [the ship's crew] to man their anti-aircraft," said Costagliola.
Costagliola headed topside to help direct anti-aircraft fire, and from the deck of the Phoenix he witnessed the destruction of the USS Arizona.
"As I looked around, the USS Arizona was a mass of flames. It was really an earth-shaking experience," he said. "We finally got underway and got out right on time. We joined the force of destroyers and cruisers that weren't damaged and went looking for the enemy. We never did find them."
"I remember ... I was talking, conjecturing about what was going to happen to us now. We thought what we might be doing was escorting convoys and that is actually what we ended up doing," he said.
The Phoenix was dispatched to escort a small convoy from San Francisco to Melbourne, Australia in 1942. Eventually, the Phoenix became a unit in Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Southwest Pacific Force and Costagliola became involved in retaking New Guinea, the Philippines and Borneo from Japan.
Costagliola served on the Phoenix for the duration of the war and spent 30 years in the Navy.
'A man from a boy in one day'
Retired Marine Corps Maj. Albert Grasselli was one of the first to be attacked on that fateful day. His unit was located 15 miles west of Pearl Harbor at Ewa Marine Air Base - directly in the path the Japanese war planes would take to Pearl Harbor.
"I became a man from a boy in one day," said Grasselli. "We were the first ones to be attacked at 7:55 [a.m.]. We were in a direct line from where the planes had taken off from the Japanese carriers. We were the only thing stopping them from [getting to] the ships in Pearl Harbor and so they made sure our fighters were destroyed - within 10 or 15 minutes we lost 48 airplanes."
Grasselli had been in the Marines for one year when the Japanese attacked. He had just recently studied intelligence at the University of Hawaii.
"We were terrified at first; we had never been shot at before," he said. "Airplanes were blowing up and they were shooting at us, but then I got very angry because the pilots were coming down very low. They were flying so low I could actually see the pilots who appeared to be laughing."
At the university, Grasselli had learned that the Japanese were going to attack because he was living with Japanese students, but he didn't know when the attack would happen.
"The thing is, we just never knew exactly when it was going to be, but we should have been much better prepared because we knew that the place was going to be attacked," he said. "There were a lot of mistakes made, like lining up our airplanes so they only had to hit one and they all blew up like a string of firecrackers."
Ewa was attacked three times - twice as the Japanese planes headed toward Pearl Harbor and again as the Japanese aircraft left.
"It was during that last attack that my rifle was shot out of my hands," said Grasselli.
"The enemy bullet had either ricocheted or hit my [rifle] sight directly. In any case, it missed striking me in the head by six inches."
That afternoon, Honolulu radio stations reported that the Japanese were making amphibious landings on the island. Grasselli was assigned to a fighting position to keep watch.
"I spent three days in a lava hole with a .30 caliber machine gun and the only thing I shot was a cow - it came too close one night," he said.
The events at Pearl Harbor changed Grasselli's life because it allowed him to get into the Navy flight school.
"My eyes had kept me out [of flight school] but after Dec. 7 they lowered the restrictions so I was able to go in," he said. If the Japanese had not attacked Pearl Harbor, "I never would have been a pilot."
Grasselli served as a pilot during WWII and in the Korean War. He spent 20 years in the Marine Corps.
On Dec. 7, 2000, six green ash trees were planted at Arlington National Cemetery, approximately 50 yards from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in memory of those lost during the Pearl Harbor attack. The trees represent the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine, and were grown from seeds gathered from a tree at the birthplace of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Denison, Texas.
Costagliola took part in the ceremony that dedicated the trees in 2000.
Lancaster, Costagliola and Grasselli plan to visit the grove today to pay homage to their fallen comrades.
And in true ROMEO spirit, they plan to go to lunch afterward.