Fort Worth

Pearl Harbor survivor recalls ‘when our lives were changed forever’

William “Bill” Hughes was asleep in the radio operator bunk room of the USS Utah when the jolt from an explosion almost threw him from his cot.

The 94-year-old veteran has vivid memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor, when a wall of Japanese warplanes appeared from above, dropping bombs on the Hawaiian naval base on Dec. 7, 1941.

Hughes’ battleship was in port and in the first minutes of the assault was struck by torpedoes, causing it to quickly roll over and sink. Dozens of men were killed; more than 450 survived.

“At 7:55 a.m. [Hawaii time], we were hit by two torpedoes, 20 seconds apart,” Hughes said.

Hughes, who swam to shore, recalled the heroism of those around him, including some who operated boats to ferry personnel from the doomed ship. Others lent a hand to wounded shipmates in distress.

“It was our worst hour and yet our finest hour,” Hughes said.

On this anniversary, one year shy of three-quarters of a century, the veteran has one wish: “Let’s hope we keep America’s military strong, the diplomats do not fail and this terrible history will never be repeated.”

Hughes was a teenage farm boy when he decided to leave his rural southwest Louisiana home and enlist in the Navy. He attended boot camp in San Diego and was thrilled when on Nov. 8, 1940, he boarded the Utah in Hawaiian waters.

“It was a grand old ship,” said Hughes, who was a radioman third class. “Life aboard the Utah was great. It was the best sea duty I ever had.”

He recalled the attack on Pearl Harbor for the Star-Telegram as he has often done over the years to his family, area schools, community groups, attendees at veterans parades and anyone else who has shown an interest in that fateful event.

“It’s important to keep that history alive,” Hughes said of the surprise attack that launched America into World War II.

‘Lives were changed forever’

He was asleep on the Utah when the raid on the American Pacific fleet was launched. Realizing that the Utah was sinking, he and others jumped overboard and began swimming for shore.

He calls the day one where “our lives were changed forever.”

“On that lazy Sunday morning, most off-duty radiomen were asleep on our dry, comfortable cots in the bunk room,” Hughes said. “The tumultuous explosion that rocked the ship almost threw us out of our bunks. We must have been looking at each other in sheer amazement. Within 20 or so seconds, a second jarring explosion again rocked the ship, also from the port side, and within minutes USS Utah was taking on a pronounced list to port.

“It was obvious to all of us that we needed to reach topside immediately.”

Hughes, wearing a shirt and pair of white, knee-high tropical trousers, said he swam ashore, made his way to the beach and took cover in a freshly dug pipeline trench, from where he watched the remainder of the battle.

“The only scratch I received during World War II occurred when wading up the beach onto Ford Island,” Hughes said. “I cut my bare foot on a piece of coral.”

Hughes remembers the “terrible sight” of the mangled superstructure of the USS Arizona. The horrific panorama included the USS Oklahoma and USS California — both of which sank — as well as the damaged USS Nevada and USS Maryland and several destroyers.

“These sights gave us a knot in the pit of our stomachs and very heavy hearts,” Hughes said.

He recalled one vignette about a man who survived a harrowing ordeal. Fireman Second Class Jack Vaesson was trapped below decks when the Utah rolled over.

“He stayed behind to keep the lights on to help us get out,” Hughes said.

The trapped seaman tapped the hull with a wrench, and two sailors who heard him scurried to a nearby cruiser, the USS Raleigh, to get help. Even though their ship was badly damaged, a rescue crew set out, cut through the bottom with a torch and pulled Vaesson to safety.

“The USS Raleigh was having troubles of its own,” Hughes said. “They cut Jack out while the [Japanese] were still strafing. I saw the first heroes in action.”

On the night of Dec. 7, the sailors were transported from Ford Island on the USS Argonne. He and others returned to the Utah on Dec. 8 to retrieve ammo after welders had cut entrances into the bottom.

“We were the lucky ones, collecting ammunition,” Hughes said. “Many were assigned the job of collecting bodies and body parts from the murky waters of the harbor.”

He was later assigned to the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier, and was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed in 1945, marking the end of World War II.

“That long trek from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay lasted three years, eight months and 25 days,” Hughes said.

Hughes retired from the military on Nov. 1, 1962, after 22 years of service. After a brief stint in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he changed careers to telecommunications in the oil business, retiring 20 years later.

Witness to historic events

The majority of the thousands of uniformed personnel in Hawaii at the time of the attack are no longer alive. Most survivors are in their 90s and beyond.

In North Texas, only a handful of survivors remain, including Hughes and Robert W. Tanner of Cedar Hill, James Hardwick of Dallas, John E. Lowe Jr. of Dallas, Robert U. Hanna of Fort Worth, Leland Rex of Fort Worth, Melvin R. Cook of Grand Prairie and Anthony Gannarelli of McKinney.

Gordon Sparks, who keeps a database of survivors across the country, said his list shows nearly 3,000 Pearl Harbor survivors. But he said that the elite club is a small one that loses 10 to 15 members every month.

“It’s unbelievable how fast the numbers are dwindling,” said Sparks, 72, a Vietnam veteran who spent 30 years in the Air Force.

Rick Carraway, national president of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors, whose 93-year-old father, Myron “Jay” Carraway, is a Pearl Harbor survivor, said it’s hard to keep track of current numbers of survivors.

“My belief is about 1,800 to 2,000, but that could be off,” said Carraway, 63, of Florida.

Sherry Hughes, one of Hughes’ three children, and daughter of his late wife, Reeca, appreciates every day the sacrifice her father made for his country.

“My father is really sharp and he enjoys talking to people, especially children, at venues around the area,” Sherry Hughes said.

She spoke from her father’s new home in St. Joseph Village in Coppell, where her father recently moved to be closer to his daughters after living for years in Grapevine.

Last week, the family was unpacking boxes that include news clippings, videos of his and other Pearl Harbor survivors’ remembrances, photos, accolades, binders of his military career and other memorabilia.

Another link to history buried in the boxes is his connection to a presidential assassination.

On Nov. 22, 1963, he was working for the FBI in downtown Dallas when President John F. Kennedy was killed.

“The day that President Kennedy was assassinated, I watched the motorcade go by,” Hughes said. “I did not see Kennedy killed.”

He participated in the ensuing investigation, he said. A letter from a special agent in charge states, in part, “You can be proud of your performance and contributions to this involved and delicate investigation.”

Hughes declined to discuss his role, other than to say it involved monitoring conversations of people of interest in the investigation.

‘Magical and mystical’

In contrast, Hughes’ life in recent years has been a relatively quiet one.

One new development this year is a girlfriend.

Growing up in southwest Louisiana in the 1930s, Hughes had a crush on a fellow fourth-grader with long blond hair who was “radiant and dazzling.”

He moved away shortly afterward and for the next eight decades he and Lu Mathis lost contact. Both went on to marry and have families.

After Reeca, his wife of 65 years died, Hughes said he holed up in his apartment and grieved for several years.

But with the help of his twins, Beverly and Sherry, and son Bill Jr., he realized he “had to get past this tragedy.” That’s when, he said, something “magic and mystical” happened.

“I have a family tree on,” he said. “One day when scrolling through other family trees I was astounded by a name I recognized — the dazzling little blond from my childhood. I zapped an email to the tree owner who confirmed that [she was] my oh-so-pretty little angel and was living just about 30 or so miles away.”

The tree owner emailed a photo of Matthis, who lives with her daughter in Plano, and “presto, there she was.” Not one to let an opportunity pass, he said they quickly were “surpassing teenagers burning up phone lines” as they continue to do nearly every day. She also accompanied him to a family party for his 94th birthday in Southlake.

“Cupid’s arrow, fired at me, hit its target,” he said of the little girl he used to walk to school. “My last life adventure begins with my first love.”

Marty Sabota, 817-390-7367