By Ben ShermanDecember 8, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla. -- At 89 years of age, Roland Nee remembers Dec. 7, 1941 as if it were yesterday. He had been stationed at Schofield Barracks near Pearl Harbor for nine months prior to the attack, attached to the 8th Light Artillery Battalion, 25th Infantry Division. He was an eyewitness to history on the "day that will live in infamy."
He and some of his buddies had gone down to Pearl to cut loose and have some fun. "I had just seen Pearl the night before. I was there Saturday night. It was all lit up and the ships were close in to the beach. They were having a dance out on the deck of the (USS)Pennsylvania, the officers were. It was something to see. What a night! You never forget that," Nee said.
"We came back to Schofield that Saturday night, about 10:30 p.m. I went to bed, got up the next morning to go to chow. We started across the quadrangle and the Jap planes came in," Nee remembered, tears welling up in his eyes. "They came in about 7,000 feet up. The sun was shining on them. There were a lot of them. They came up in three different sections. The one on the right peeled off and went down to Pearl. The other one came around and worked us over. Bombed us and strafed us," he said.
"They caught us out in the open. I was running around a building to get away from a strafing plane and slipped and fell down in a drainage ditch at the corner of the building. There was a guy running behind me and the machine gun bullets got him from the waist to the head. He fell dead on top of me. Very unpleasant," Nee said, full of emotion.
After the Japanese attack ended at Schofield Barracks the American forces were devastated. "They destroyed most of our aircraft on the ground. We only got six P-40 fighters up. All of the Navy fighters were with the carriers and they left Dec. 5. All I had was a .45-caliber pistol. I didn't get a rifle until later that night."
Nee and his men loaded up their vehicles with their war equipment and left for Pearl. On the way the Japanese strafed them all the way down to the harbor. They had wartime positions down by the beach that, ironically, they had occupied during training exercises only a week before the attack. Nine men in Nee's battalion were killed that day, and another 16 were wounded.
"We got down to Pearl. They were still bombing and torpedoing the ships. Boy, it was a terrible thing to see. Our whole fleet was just on fire. There was something like 90 vessels there and they were blowing up," Nee stated. "Guys were in the water and it was full of oil and on fire. It was a horrible thing to see. You live it every day of your life."
Nee and his battalion got into their wartime positions and set up their guns on the beach. There was widespread fear that the Japanese were going to mount an invasion from the sea. As Nee said, no one had expected an air attack on Pearl Harbor. His battalion defended the harbor until October 1942 when they were moved back up to Schofield. "They sent us out into the 'boonies' above Schofield to get ready to be shipped out to Guadalcanal. We left in November of '42 for Guadalcanal."
Nee went on to see action at Guadalcanal with the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment as a forward observer, directing artillery on the enemy. He stayed with the 27th Infantry for a year on Guadalcanal until they were sent to New Zealand for rest and refitting. They were later sent to New Georgia, and other islands in the Solomon Islands. He made first sergeant during this time and his unit was eventually involved in the invasion of Luzon in the Philippines in January, 1945.
"We fought our way up the island for seven months," Nee said. He had been wounded at Guadalcanal and the Philippines, but he kept going back to the battle. "I got hit again in the thigh while I was with the infantry on Luzon. There were five guys out of the forward observer section of the 2nd Battalion. They were coming up to help us out and they got wiped out. The Japs killed them all. A corpsman finally got there to take care of me, but they couldn't get me off the hill. So I stayed there overnight, and they took me off the hill the next morning and sent me to the hospital in Manila. They took my rifle away from me, and I didn't like that at all!" he said with fierce determination.
Finally Nee's wounds were serious enough that he was sent back to the states in July 1945. He was in a hospital in Hampton Rhodes, Va., when World War II ended. But that wasn't the end of his Army service. He went back to Japan in January 1946 as part of the U.S. occupation force. He had been stationed in Japan for five years when North Korean forces invaded South Korea.
Eventually Nee and the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry saw action in Korea. He served in the occupation force in Korea after the war and eventually retired from the Army in 1961.
But the Army wasn't through with him quite yet. He was recalled to duty in 1968 and served a year in Vietnam. He will tell you that he can't remember much about Vietnam, except being shot down twice in helicopters while directing artillery fire as a forward observer. "My memories are mostly blank when it comes to Vietnam, except for being shot down, once in a Chinook and once in a Huey. It's hard to forget something like that," he said with a chuckle. He finally retired for good in 1969 with the rank of command sergeant major.
But ask Nee about Pearl Harbor and he can remember everything in vivid detail. "I tell you, December 7th was the worst I have ever experienced. It was terrible. I lost a lot of buddies that day," he said. As a founding member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association he has fought to keep the memories of those who died that day from fading away. He was quick to point out that the official casualty figures for that day are incorrect.
"We all had a head count for the Pearl Harbor Survivor's Association and the total killed at Pearl was 3,581," Nee stated. "The government says 2,407 because that was all the records they had. You see, the records at that time were kept with the units. A lot of the records got lost on the ships, so they couldn't count them. So the government said 2,407. No, it was 3,581. That's what our count was. Each one of us named the guy and the place where they died. We know who all of them are."
Even though he was wounded three times during his military career, he never received a Purple Heart medal. "I just never got around to getting them. I was too busy fighting." he chuckled. Nee did receive 21 other medals during his Army service, including the Bronze Star twice. "Some people try to call me a hero. I'm no hero. Those guys who didn't make it home are the real heroes, not me. They died. I'm here." Nee said.
As a survivor of Pearl Harbor, Nee has gone back many times to observe the memory of Dec. 7. Because of failing health, he was not able to go this year for the 70th anniversary. But he has vivid memories of his last visit.
"The last time I was there in Hawaii in 2006, a Jap fighter pilot who was involved in the attack came to visit with us. He had become a converted Baptist minister and got on the podium in front of the Pearl Harbor Survivor's Association to speak. He bowed to us and apologized for the attack but then he said, 'I only was doing my duty.' Then he prayed for us. Well, you couldn't hate a man for that," Nee said.
The number of Pearl Harbor survivors continues to decrease as the years go by. There were 490 military personnel from Oklahoma who survived that day. In 2006, at the 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, there were 92 Oklahomans still living. This year there are less than 30 survivors.