BY WILL RICKETTS
SPECIAL TO THE EXAMINER
82 years ago, on the dates of Dec. 7 and Dec. 8 of 1941, events would take place that would change the trajectory of nations and the lives of those affected by those events. They would start at 7:55 a.m. on the morning of the 7th with the attack on Pearl Harbor, other attacks would take place on Gaum, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaya by the Empire of Japan.
On the 8th at noon, 2,000 miles away from the Pearl Harbor, Wake Island would come under attack by the Japanese, less than 1,000 Americans and locals would hold out until Dec. 23 before being forced to surrender, but they would put up a fight only losing 100 men, compared to the Japanese Navy that would lose four ships, one submarine and 1,000 men.
Also on Dec. 8, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would give his Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy speech also declaring war on the Empire of Japan and ultimately its allies.
Elmer Harrison Breeze from Rushsylvania, born on Aug. 26, 1920. Growing up in a two-story brick house on Miami Road, he would graduate from Rushsylvania High School with the class of 1938. He joined the U.S. Navy in August of 1940, and trained at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station for six weeks.
He would then go to Bremerton, Wash., where he was assigned to the USS West Virginia BB-48. He was assigned as a gunners mate to the 5-inch 25 caliber anti-aircraft guns.
The Rushsylvania native would attend to routine duties aboard the ship until that sunny clear morning on the 7th of December 1941. On board the Battleship USS West Virginia, the 21-year Breeze was just getting up and around on this Sunday morning. The following is his account.
He was taking a shower on board the ship when there was a terrific explosion and the whole thing shook, he threw on the closet piece of clothing which was a pair of boxer shorts and shot up the ladder. They thought there was an explosion under deck, Breeze would say of the startled sailors participating in the morning ceremonial raising of the flag.
“I figured an ammunition magazine had blown up,” Breeze thought at the moment. “I looked around and saw nothing but black smoke and explosions.”
Moments later, reality set in as Breeze and his 1,200 surviving shipmates scurried to their battle stations.
“The Japs are bombing us,” blared the ship’s loudspeakers. 20 feet behind the West Virginia, the USS Arizona would explode sending shrapnel, boats, and men in every direction. Breeze said it looked like it just disintegrated.
Breeze and one of the cooks from the ship would dive into the fiery water shortly after the ship took a torpedo hit to the engine room and the ship lost all power and the call to abandon ship by voice was given.
He would burn his legs from his swim to the shores of Pearl Harbor trying to escape the peril and destruction. When he reached the shore, the cook would help him from the water and helped him get to a place where he could get treated for his wounds.
The scars would remain with him for the rest of his life. Breeze would say this of the attack 50 years later: He had a hard time forgiving the Japanese for their sneak attack — a resentment that lingered inside for many years. He said time would soften him.
“I have mellowed out over the last 50 years, it doesn’t seem as important as it did years ago,” the Rushsylvania High School graduate said. “I’ve talked with them and joked with them. You’ve got to learn to live and let live.”
He would also say that he had had enough of war and also to be on the alert and always be prepared. Freedom does not come cheap.
That day, 183 Japanese Aircraft from six carriers would strike Pearl Harbor. The damage to Pearl Harbor would not only consist of battleship row, but also the Army airfields consisting of Hickam, Wheeler, and Bellows.
Eight Battleships were attacked, six were damaged and two were destroyed.
The USS Arizona BB-39 and USS Utah BB-31 were too damaged to raise, so they were left laying in Pearl Harbor, where they were docked that December morning as graves and memorials for their sailors who weren’t able to get off the ships.
The USS Oklahoma BB-37 was re-floated and prepared for scrapping. It would sink in the Pacific Ocean while being towed by two tugs in 1947 on the way to the scrap yard, it has never been found it belongs to the sea.
The USS West Virginia took seven type 91 torpedoes and a pair of 16-inch 410mm armor-piercing shells that had been converted into bombs. Thanks to the actions of Lt. Claude V. Ricketts (no relation known), the assistant fire control officer, he would counter flood the ship to keep it from capsizing. More than 100 would be killed in the attack.
Six months after the attack the ship was re-floated they would find the remains of three sailors huddled together in an airtight compartment with the calendar marked off untilDec. 23, 16 days they had survived trapped inside the sunken ship.
The ship was repaired, and sailed from Pearl Harbor April 30, 1943. It would fight during the rest of the war along with other damaged battleships, three Cruisers, three Destroyers and four auxiliaries, one destroyed.
The USS West Virginia was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap August 24, 1959. Some objects from the ship remains in different locations in West Virginia.
US Aircraft destroyed that on Dec. 7 included 92 Navy planes and 77 Army aircraft, damaged 31 Navy, 128 Army Air Corps.
On that day, U.S. casualties at Pearl Harbor consisted of the following: 2,403 were killed, including 2,008 Navy, 218 Army, 109 Marines, 68 Civilians; and 1,178 wounded, 710 Navy, 364 Army, 69 Marines and 35 civilians. They are not forgotten.
Elmer Breeze would survive the war, being assigned as a gunner’s mate onboard the USS Salt Lake City CA-25 until 1944, when he would be discharged, and his tour was up.
Breeze said he had had enough of the war so he was ready for the next chapter. He would become a firefighter, working at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton and was a firefighter and a fire chief in New Carlisle for many years.
After retirement, he would move to Texas. He would attend reunions of the Pearl Harbor survivors also the USS Salt Lake City and USS West Virginia, occasionally sharing his story. He would also be a parade marshal for the May 31, 1993, Memorial Day parade in Bellefontaine.
My Great-Uncle Elmer would pass away Oct. 12, 2000. He’s buried outside of New Carlisle, where he watched over the town as a firefighter. I believe that line of work stemmed from those fires at Pearl Harbor on that Dec. 7, 1941.
Pearl Harbor survivor Elmer Breeze was the 1993 Bellefontaine Memorial Day Parade grand marshal. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
Elmer Breeze, right, is pictured with his parents in front of the Rushsylvania High School. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)
The USS West Virginia, front, and USS Tennessee BB-43 are pictured after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)