Pearl Harbor stories

Poor personal grooming saved 17-year-old Cecil Calavan’s life.

Had Calavan not been sent to shave one Sunday morning, he would have been in a compartment on the USS Utah when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Dec. 7, 1941.

“A bosun’s mate told me ‘Get rid of that fuzz or you won’t go ashore again,’ ” Calavan recalled.

He manned guns for the rest of the day.

“I grabbed a razor and mirror and was on the stern shaving when the attack began.”

Calavan said he was certain he would have been killed if he had been blow decks.

The Utah was hit and sank in less than 17 minutes, trapping men in the ship.

“Some had to have be been in that living hell for hours — days maybe — before they died,” Calavan recalled.

The Anacortes resident joined a small group of other Pearl Harbor survivors and their families along with active duty sailors at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s Seaplane Base Tuesday, Dec. 7, for the 63rd anniversary of the Japanese attack. Survivors dropped a wreath into the water.

Red and white flowers spun on Crescent Harbor’s dark grey water and rifles fired against a gun-grey sky as people who died and people who survived the attack were remembered. This marks the seventh year of memorial services hosted by Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 11.

Although Pearl Harbor and later duty in the South Pacific was hazardous, Calavan said a stateside job was just as dangerous, if not more.

As a shore patrolman, Calavan rode trains from San Francisco to San Pedro, Calif.

“Everyone would be drunk, especially the soliders,” Calavan said.

“There were always bad fights to break up.”

Calavan used the GI Bill to earn a teaching degree. He taught third grade in Anacortes for years but went back into the service. He admires people serving today.

“The U.S. military is as great now as it ever was,” he said.

Harold Shimer didn’t get to his duty station when general quarters sounded Dec. 7, 1941. The petty officer second class was helping carry a wounded man to the USS Helena’s sick bay when a torpedo hit, killing 18 sailors where Shimer should have been.

Shimer saw the attack from below. He began passing ammunition for new guns that had been installed that summer.

“In a superhuman effort we emptied the ammunition locker in less than two hours,” Shimer said.

Later, Shimer was based in Australia at a submarine supply station in Freemantle.

At the end of the war, Shimer celebrated VJ Day, Aug. 6, 1945, on duty in Sydney, Australia.

“It was me and a yeoman,” Shimer recalled. “All the rest of Sydney was out having a great time.”

By 1945, Shimer was a warrant officer who spent the next day traveling between the enlisted club and the officers club. He said he doesn’t remember much about the next day.

Jim Stansell couldn’t fire deck guns from the USS Hull. The ship was in dry dock and had no power.

“We had to watch and get the ship ready for sea,” he said. Stansell spent time in the South Pacific. At first in the Gilbert and Marshall islands then deeper south with Australian and New Zealand navies raiding islands, bombing and destroying, before Japanese troops invaded. He went on to Guadalcanal and then north to the Aleutian Islands. Today, Stansell is president of the North Cascade Chapter of Pearl Harbor Survivors.

James Vyskocil didn’t pass ammunition or aid wounded. For 23 hours, the signalman stood duty in a signal tower 154 feet above the battle. After being relieved from the tower, the petty officer second class put the dead in mattress covers and poured formaldehyde over the stacks of bodies.

Today, Vyskocil divides his time between Whidbey and Camano islands.

He retired at NAS Whidbey after 33 years of service. By then, he was a lieutenant commander who said he “fell afoul Admiral Zumwalt.”

At a conference, Vyskocil disagreed with Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, then chief of naval operations, over minorities in the service.

Zumwalt asked Vyskocil how many men he had and how many minorities.

I told the admiral, ‘Skin color doesn’t matter, everyone bleeds the same,’ ”Vyskocil said. Zumwalt did not share the same views.

Soon after, Vyskocil received a career-killing letter.

“It said I was unpromotable and since I had 33 years in, I had to retire,” Vyskocil said.

Vyskocil said he hadn’t served directly with other survivors at Tuesday’s ceremony,

“But when we come together we have one thing in common: We faced the same gunfire and survived,” he said.

Vyskocil and others watched time carefully, knowing they couldn’t stay very long at the reception. Another ceremony at a Pearl Harbor memorial waited for them at Terry’s Corner on Camano Island.

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