Pearl Harbor Anniversary: Stories from the War

It was a day that lived in infamy, a day that changed America forever.

On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor Navy Base at Honolulu, Hawaii, as a preemptive measure against the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

This catapulted the U.S. into the First World War, and changed the lives of an entire generation of Americans.

Barney Leone and Leon Walman, both natives of the Bronx, enlisted into the U.S. armed forces a year after Pearl Harbor.

Both men grew up blocks away from one another, and even had tailors for fathers, yet did not meet one another until they were in their nineties.

The two men met in later life when they were placed together on a WWII lunch group in Los Angeles, and became fast friends soon after.

Leone was later adopted by the 483rd Bombardment Group, the wing of B-17 Flying Fortresses that both my grandfather, George Stovall, and Walman served in through the duration of the war. He does frequent tours of California schools speaking of his experiences.

Before this, Leone served in the Pacific campaign against Imperial Japan on a refueling tanker. Walman served in Northern Africa, Italy and Germany with the 483rd.

Leone said, “In World War II now on December 7th when they bombed Pearl Harbor I was at my aunt’s wedding and I was only eighteen years of age, and we were having a good time at the wedding, and then we heard the announcement that Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. Well I didn’t know that much about Pearl Harbor to begin with, I don’t know if many other people did either, but we didn’t know exactly what was going on but we knew it was probably being bombed anyhow.

“But one of the bridesmaids was crying, and I’m not sure why she was crying when I found out that her brother was in the Navy at Pearl Harbor. And to this day I don’t know if he survived that or not.”

Walman also clearly remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Walman said, “Well I was in a movie with my then-best friend Laurel Lightfine, and we stopped at a store. When we came out it was late afternoon and people were talking about Pearl Harbor, and nobody knew what the heck Pearl Harbor was. 

“And [Lightfine] was a semester ahead of me, so he was going to graduate high school in January, this was December of ’41 of course. But the next day he went out without telling me or anybody else, he just went down and joined the Navy and put in 13 years.”

After Lightfine entered the service, Walman joined some time after.

Walman said, “So I had just turned 17, so I stayed in highschool for another semester and graduated in the summer of ’42, and it took me until November to get up the nerve to join. And you know there was a draft on, but they weren’t drafting 18 year olds so much as more 19 or 20. 

“But I decided well, I’ll get the jump on them and pick what I want, pick the Air Force. And on November 16th, I went away on November 16th.”

Leone also attempted to go into the Air Force, but was unable to choose it while being drafted.

Leone said, “I didn’t want to enlist into the service because my father was a World War I veteran, and I knew it would break his heart if I just jumped in. but I knew I was going to get called anyway, so when I was 18 and a half years of age I got a letter from the president of the United States, and they didn’t call me a draftee in the letter they called me a “selective volunteer’, so I call myself a selective volunteer.”

Once drafted, Leone had trouble choosing which branch of the military he would serve in.

Leone said, “When we went down for a physical, and they told us that day that the Marines would have first choice of all the recruits that came in that day, the Navy had second choice and the Army got what was left over. Well, I thought that would be a cinch then because the Air Force was part of the Army at the time, and I figured there’d be no problem.

“However, after I stepped out after my physical a Navy officer signaled to me to come to his desk, and I disobeyed because I didn’t think I had to obey orders, I wasn’t drafted yet. I said no and I went to the Army guy because I wanted to go into the Airforce and he rejected me, he said ‘No, if they picked you out you have to the Navy’.”

After a few months in various boot camps across the country, Leone was sent down to New Orleans to pick up his ship, the U.S.S. Nemasket, then head through Panama to the Pacific Ocean.

The Nemasket was an aviation fuel ship, moving in between larger ships to resupply them.

Leone said, “When we went out on convoy, nobody in the convoy wanted to be anywhere near us so they kept us at the end of every convoy. And the only company we had was a munitions ship, so if we ever got hit neither one of us would have a chance but we wouldn’t affect the rest of the convoy.”

Walman’s first stationing out of boot camp was in North Africa, flying in with brand new B-17G Flying Fortresses to Tunisia.

However, once in Tunis, the new planes were given over to an older bomber group, and Walman’s Bombing squadron received a much older plane nicknamed the Bad Penny, which already had one hundred missions on it.

Walman said, “The Air Force in their wisdom decided that we didn’t deserve those shiny new planes, they took them away from us, gave them to the old hands that were there, and we got a bad penny which had a hundred missions on it.

“It had nine swastikas and whale, and so someone [on the crew] must have killed a whale by accident.”

After arriving in their respective fronts, both men saw pieces of American history unfold before them.

Leone’s ship was a part of a convoy helping with the Battle of Iwo Jima, and even saw the historic raising of the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, and the hard fought landing of Marines on Iwo Jima’s beach.

Leone said, “This was the most heart-wrenching experience I have witnessed at this time, and it’s a picture that when I speak to the students I want them to get the impression that their freedom that they enjoy at this present time, myself included, didn’t come free. Somebody was willing to lay down their life to preserve that freedom.

“So here comes this first wave of Marines, and my ship would be the very last ship they would pass before hitting the beach. We’re in our gun positions, we were ordered not to do any firing whatsoever while we were there to begin with, it was obvious that we were close to the beach and being loaded with navigation fuel you don’t want to attract fire.”

The opening charge of amphibious boats towards the beach is something that Leone would never forget.

Leone said, “Here comes the first Higgins Boats, I forget how many Marines were on the boats coming by. They came by our ship, we all raised our hands up giving a thumbs-up sign wishing them well.

“Not one Marine looked at us. I didn’t expect them to wave back to us. 

When teaching, Leone tries to mimic the way the Marines acted heading towards the beach in order to have his students fully grasp the gravity of the situation, and the terror many Marines felt.

Leone said, “When I’m talking to the kids at school I take either a ruler or a my cane, I hold it up and pretend it’s a rifle, I hold it close to my face shaking a little bit.” 

After fierce fighting with high casualties, on February 23rd the first of two flags were raised on Mount Suribachi by Marines in the heart of Japanese defenses. 

Leone said, “I couldn’t tell whose flag it was. I didn’t think it would be the Marines because it was only D-Day (day of invasion) two or three at the most. 

“And the next day evidently, I didn’t know this at the time, they sent up a bigger flag and with my binoculars when I saw the stars and stripes I got excited. And I was telling my shipmate, ‘That’s our flag up there’ because I couldn’t believe our Marines could even get up there that soon to begin with.”

After Iwo Jima, the Nemasket headed to Okinawa for the final push against the Japanese.

As Imperial Japan realized it was losing Okinawa, they began authorizing the use of kamikaze.

During the siege of Okinawa Leone’s ship was almost hit by a kamikaze plane off the island, before it was shot down only a few seconds before hitting the ship.

Leone said, “My captain thanked the other captain from the other ship, to thank him for shooting the plane down, and you know what he signaled back?

“He said, and it was these words, ‘Hell no. We were covering the Marines and he crossed our line of fire by accident.’”

Across the world on the European front, Walman and the 483rd were engaged in heavy fighting over Europe and Italy as they pushed the Germans back.

One of the missions most deeply set in Walman’s mind was that over the German city of Memmingen in Bavaria, which ended in disaster for his bombing wing.

Due to rough weather conditions and other problems in flight, many planes were either turned back to base or were redirected to other targets. All 65 escorting fighter planes for the bombing group did not arrive, and only 26 B-17’s made it to the target.

Walman said, “26 of us are going across Austria heading towards Germany fat and happy, and the Germans saw that. So by the time we got to the target, they had sent up every fighter that they had in southwest Germany after us.

“I looked out my window. I was on the extreme right of the group, I was on the right wing of the group leader.”

Although it looked initially clear over their startegic target, the 483rd’s planes were quickly under attack by German planes.

Walman said, “I look out and I see what looked like a flock of birds or insects. But all of a sudden I realized birds or insects didn’t fly that high, and when they came closer I could see there was about 75 German fighters coming right at us.”

Casualties were quick and extreme.

Walman said, “In a few minutes they shot down 14 of the 26 bombers in the group.”

Although eventually relieved by American planes and able to finish their mission, the 483rd’s Memmengen mission had one of the  highest casualty rates of any bombardment of the war.

Although both men left the second World War changed, one important lesson came after the war, and it would be improper not to mention it. 

After the war while stationed in China, Leone and a group of sailors from his ship were on the Chinese mainland, watching two Chinese men argue hoping to see a fistfight.

Leone said, “Well this went on for about 20 minutes, and they were both pretty strong, waving their hands, and I didn’t know what they were saying but they looked angry. Then they stopped arguing and both walked away and we were dissapointed that we didn’t see a fistfight. 

“Well I was all curious, and I looked around and I see another Chinese man that seemed to be better dressed than the rest of them that were there that day. So I walked over to him and with the best of my ability with my hands and a little bit of Chinese words I asked how come we didn’t see them fighting.”

Out of every hard learned-lesson of the war, this is the one Leone remembers best.

Leone said, “He said to me this in Chinese: ‘When two people are fighting with each other, the first person to raise his had to hit the other person automatically loses the argument because he has nothing more to say.’”