By Sean KimmonsDecember 8, 2016
WASHINGTON (Army News Service) -- A loud explosion jolted Jay C. Groff Jr., a 19-year-old Army Air Corps member, out of bed inside a barracks building at Hickam Field on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
He glanced outside the window of his third-floor room and saw a Japanese fighter aircraft roar by at eye level. The attacks on Pearl Harbor and other military sites on the Hawaiian island of Oahu had begun.
"The only reason we recognized it as a Japanese [aircraft] was because of a big red ball [on its tail]," said Groff, 94, of Springfield, Virginia.
Groff and others rushed out of the building to a nearby armament shop, where they grabbed machine guns and placed 10 of them across the street on a baseball diamond, lined up between third base and home plate.
"While we were setting up the guns, there was one or two planes that flew over and strafed us," he recalled. "We were close enough that we could recognize the guy in the backseat with the machine gun."
Groff then raced over to a boathouse at the entrance of Pearl Harbor, where he worked for the Army Air Corps' rescue boat service. There, he was told to head to the top of the workshop and man a .50-caliber machine gun.
By that time, bombs were raining down on the baseball field, killing those he had helped shortly before.
"The ballfield during the second attack was devastated by bombs. All of those people on that gun position I was on were killed in one of the explosions," the retired chief warrant officer said during a Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony Wednesday at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The attacks on that day eventually left more than 2,400 dead and nearly 1,200 wounded, catapulting the U.S. into the war.
About 20 miles to the northwest, William Flatters was walking across his quad to open up a library at Schofield Barracks when a Japanese fighter fired bullets near him. One of those bullets, he said, ricocheted and brushed by his uniform.
"It took a button off my shirt; it was that close," said Flatters, 95, of Brownsville, Texas.
He looked up at the low-flying aircraft and saw the pilot wearing his helmet with a scarf around his neck flapping in the wind.
"I just stood still," he said. "And about that time, the loud speaker system there said, 'Return to barracks immediately, we're at war!'"
Close calls would continue for him months later when he was deployed with the 25th Infantry Division to the Battle of Guadalcanal, where about 7,100 American and allied troops died and many more were injured.
"We were on board a ship for about two months until they made up their mind where they wanted to put us," Flatters said. "That's when I wound up at Guadalcanal."
During that battle, shrapnel tore three puncture holes in his left leg and he had to be evacuated, he added.
WORLD WAR II MEMORIAL CEREMONY
The ceremony's keynote speaker, Arizona Sen. John McCain, also knows about being wounded in combat. He suffered serious injuries when his Navy jet was shot down in 1967 while he was on a mission over Hanoi, Vietnam.
Now the chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, McCain reflected on Pearl Harbor and how its memory still serves as an example of perseverance.
"They fought the first battle and set the first example in the long campaign of America's enlightened leadership of the free world," he said. "Many battles followed and many challenges were offered and met. With our allies, we defeated our enemies in the Pacific and Europe; we defeated our Cold War adversary; and we will prevail over the challenges we face today."
(Follow Sean Kimmons on Twitter: @KimmonsARNEWS)