Sailor recalls attack on Pearl Harbor

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 7, 2007

Editors Note: Ira D. Huff is the featured &8220;Defender of Freedom&8221; for December.

BY James G. Smith


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The prospects of becoming involved in World War II wasn&8217;t exactly on Ira D. Huff&8217;s mind when he joined the Navy in 1936, getting from behind a mule was.

Joining the Navy was his ticket off the farm. He decided it may be the mule&8217;s fate to stay on the farm, but not his.

Huff was the third child born to the late Emmett and Velma Huff of Perry County who later relocated to Stanton in Chilton County. The Huffs were farmers and operated one large farm in Perry County and one in Chilton County.

As early as 1934, Huff attempted to join the Navy, but a freeze on enlistments was in effect, and he had to wait until 1936 before being successful.

After boot camp at Norfolk, Va.,

he was assigned to a transport ship operating out of Norfolk. In January 1937, Huff participated in a Navy unit marching in the inauguration parade for President Roosevelt&8217;s second term.

Later, he made his way to the West Coast and was assigned to the Battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48).

Due to continued expansion by the Japanese in the Pacific, President Roosevelt ordered the fleet on the West Coast to the Pacific in the spring of 1939. In 1940, he ordered the retention of the fleet in Hawaiian waters.

Huff and fellow shipmates of the West Virginia participated in intensive training during late 1940 and most of 1941. They would be out to sea for periods of time and then back into Pearl Harbor to replenish stores and maintenance. The battleships moored on Battleship Row along the southeast shores of Ford Island in the center of Pearl Harbor.

It so happened that the West Virginia along with six sister battleships and one dry-docked were all moored in Pearl Harbor. There were more than 100 ships, almost half the fleet, in Pearl Harbor at the time. The USS West Virginia was positioned outboard of USS Tennessee and between USS Arizona and USS Oklahoma.

Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941,

began much as any other casual weekend day spent in port at Pearl Harbor. Sailors who had been on liberty the night before were snuggly sleeping in while others were readying themselves for Sunday liberty onshore. The big and small ships alike were well into the 8 a.m. muster and flag raising ceremonies. All was well in paradise, or so it seemed.

Huff had been on duty Saturday night and after a visit to the mess hall for chow was making his way through the compartments to his quarters. He never made it. Shortly before 8 a.m., planes from six Japanese aircraft carriers two flight hours north of Hawaii began raining down death and destruction on the U. S. Pacific Fleet.

The USS Utah moored on the northeast side of Ford Island was mistaken for a carrier and targeted along with the battleships. In fact, the Utah was a target ship for our planes to use for practice. At the same time torpedoes were ripping into the Utah, they were also rupturing the hulls of the big battleships along Battleship Row.

Japanese torpedo planes were coming in from three directions picking off battleships like shooting decoy ducks on a pond. The helpless ships in Pearl Harbor didn&8217;t even have ammunition on deck for the anti-aircraft guns. Most of the ammunition was below deck locked in magazines. The ensuing battle was little more than target practice for the invading Japanese.

Huff recalls the first torpedo ripping into the West Virginia&8217;s hull and being thrown about the ship like a ping pong ball. The first torpedo was followed by another and another until he lost count and consciousness. Ammonia escaping from the refrigeration units onboard filled portions of the ship and rendered those in contact with it unconscious. Huff&8217;s body bobbed around in 3 feet of water like a fishing cork when rescued by fellow shipmates who happened along and found him still breathing.

They pulled him topside where bullets from strafing Zeros and jagged pieces of shrapnel flew around, making survival a matter of chance. The West Virginia&8217;s captain, Mervyn Bennion, barked orders from the bridge for sailors to flood the compartments opposite the torpedo damage, attempting to save his ship and crew. Mortally wounded by shrapnel that ripped open his abdomen, Capt. Bennion continued to give orders and refused to be removed. He collapsed and died after ordering others off the bridge before it was too late. A Congressional Medal Of Honor was awarded posthumously to Capt. Bennion for his devotion to duty, bravery and complete disregard for his own life.

The West Virginia was engulfed in flames as two bombs released high above the ship found their mark on the deck. The bombs ignited the fuel and oil released from the torpedo damaged battleships, especially the Oklahoma and West Virginia. The waters and ships were turned into burning infernos as men tried desperately to seek safety. As Huff recalls, &8220;it looked as if the entire harbor was on fire with huge plumes of thick black smoke billowing skyward.&8221; &8220;Everyone was scrambling around trying to save themselves and their shipmates.&8221;

Huff recalls reaching land on Ford Island and upon regaining composure found the only thing on his body was a tattered pair of under shorts. No shoes, no shirt, no pants, just Huff practically in his birthday suit. The horrific explosions onboard the ship and being thrown around the compartment had virtually stripped his body of clothing.

Fortunately, he escaped the sinking burning ship without any shrapnel, bullet holes or serious burns to his body. After a brief inspection, a laceration to his foot, a deep thigh bruise and a neck/back injury were the extent of his injuries.

Volunteers from the USS West Virginia returned after first evacuating to battle the raging fires onboard. The USS West Virginia settled to the bottom of Pearl Harbor on an even keel with at least seven torpedoes and two bomb hits. It remained upright due to Captain Bennion&8217;s fast thinking and dying efforts to save his ship.

In all, 106 officers and enlisted men from the West Virginia lost their lives during the attack.

The West Virginia was raised from its watery grave and re-floated on May 17, 1942. Workers recovered 70 bodies of West Virginia sailors who were trapped in the hull when it sank. A calendar found in one of the compartments last scratched off date was December 23, 1941.

After the West Virginia was temporarily repaired and deemed seaworthy, Huff was asked to accompany the proud old battleship back to the west coast for a complete rebuilding. He graciously accepted and helped bring her to Puget Sound Navy Yard at Brementon, Washington. She wouldn&8217;t re-enter the war until the middle of 1944.

There was a lot of fight left in Huff, and the Navy wasted no time in reassigning him to a destroyer, USS Cassin Young (DD-793). The Cassin Young was launched on September 9, 1943, from San Pedro, Calif. She saw her first action in the Pacific during April 1944. The Cassin Young survived two separate hits by Japanese kamikazes on picket duty off Okinawa. The second hit on July 30, 1945, completely disabled the ship and was only saved from sinking by the heroics of her crew. Huff, once again, escaped unscathed, but mourned the loss of 22 shipmates.

The war ended with Huff serving on the USS Cascade (AD-16). He continued to re-enlist in the Navy and spent a total of 20 years active duty and 10 years of Ready Reserve. Huff served on 9 different Navy ships ending his career on the USS Coral Sea.

Several years ago, Huff lost his first wife the late, Lois Sanders Huff, whom he married in 1938. He now lives a quiet retired life in Montgomery with his wife of 8 years, Myrtie Parks-Huff.