A little before 4 a.m. on December 7, 1941, J.C. Alston was wakened by a fellow sailor as he slept in a bunk on the USS California, the lead ship moored to docks adjacent to Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor. It was Alston’s turn to take up watch on the port side of the battleship’s quarterdeck. His shift was from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.
After waking the officer of the day and the chief boatsmate, Alston stood under a clear dark sky filled with stars and a waning moon. He could see the silhouette of the battleship’s coning tower and its gun batteries. As always, the crew was to awake the captain if they saw any threat, but the eighteen-year-old sailor had never had an occasion to waken him.
Sometime around sunrise, the bugler sounded reveille. The harbor water was so glassy smooth that Alston watched a PBY pontoon plane repeatedly fail to take off from the surface of the harbor’s waters. (PBY is short for “patrol bomber” with the “Y” the military designation for its manufacturer, Consolidated Aircraft.) Needing choppier water to get lift, a PT (patrol torpedo) boat cruised in circles to create a wake and the seaplane was soon aloft. On the forward deck, sailors put up a white awning for Sunday morning religious services. Small boats arrived with GIs planning to attend. His shift nearly over, Alston was ready for next sailor to relieve him. He was hungry for breakfast.
He then heard the noise of aircraft flying in his direction and saw low-flying planes coming from behind a mountain on Oahu. “I didn’t know they were Japanese at the time. I thought some aircraft carriers were training,” Alston said, remembering that the USS Lexington left the harbor the night before laden with planes.
“Those are Japanese planes!” the boatsmate yelled. “Japanese planes!”
The bugler sounded general quarters calling sailors to their assigned battle stations. Alston’s heart raced as he ran to his, the number two 14-inch-diameter gun on middeck, and slid inside its turret. He was a gun loader. From his darkened space he could hear a barrage of sounds – roaring planes, machine-gun and anti-aircraft fire, sirens. He felt the ship violently rock when it was hit by torpedoes below its water line.
According to the action reports filed after the attack, the California was struck by two torpedoes on its port side at 8:05 a.m. and then blasted by another fifteen minutes later. At 8:10 a.m. Alston heard the loudest explosion: The bomb that blew up the USS Arizona. Blinding smoke filled the sky and fire lapped the water.
Alston’s ship also was nearly hit by four bombs that caused serious flooding and at 8:30 a.m. a bomb penetrated to its second deck where it exploded and sparked a tremendous fire that killed about fifty men.
“Fire was everywhere,” Alston recalled. The listing ship was ordered abandoned because of the threat that that it would blow up. Alston emerged from his turret and joined other sailors to leap from the quarterdeck and swim about twenty yards to nearby Ford Island. Drenched and wide-eyed, the boys were partially hidden by smoke but they could see Japanese planes bombing and strafing. They seemed close enough to throw a rock and hit the low-flying planes, which swooped down and then pulled up at the last second to avoid the towers of the burning battleships. “There were so many I don’t know how they missed each other. They were like a bunch of bees,” Alston said.
On Ford Island, officers mustered their men for roll calls to see who was still alive or missing. Soon, Alston and other sailors were ordered back aboard to man the guns on the California that remained above water. This time they scrambled across timbers that had been laid across to the quay, climbed a ladder, and pulled themselves on board.
In an almost comical confusion of combat, another abandon ship order came minutes later as the ship continued to sink despite valiant efforts to keep her afloat. The inrushing water could not be isolated and the California settled into the mud with only her superstructure above the water.
“Anybody who says they weren’t scared, well, they’re just not quite telling the truth,” Alston said as he told his story in the living room of his home in Troy, Texas. “Of course it hits them after it’s over more than it did at the time.”
Roughly one hundred of the California’s crew died and sixty-one were wounded.
Dying never entered Alston’s mind until that day. He joined the navy just five months before the attack after he had dropped out of high school. He and two buddies hitched a ride to the Dallas recruiting station. Girls were on his mind and the legend of sailors having one in every port, Alston said, smiling at the memory. He also was pragmatic: Finding work during the hard-luck days of the Great Depression was difficult if not impossible. But in the navy, “I’d have a job, three meals a day, a place to sleep and it was warm and dry,” he said.
Alston was born March 3, 1923 in Cone, a hamlet about thirty-five miles northeast of Lubbock. The middle of seven children in a farming family, he grew up during the bitter dust bowl years on the Southern Plains. He remembers when electricity came to the community and they began using light bulbs instead of kerosene lanterns. Alston was a young teen-ager when his parents hung up their plow and moved to Temple in Central Texas. His father became a carpenter.
Even with the threat of war, Alston’s parents voiced no objections to his decision to enlist. Some of Alston’s relatives had already joined the navy, and Alston considered oceanfaring the best choice. On a ship, he wouldn’t have to trudge the frontlines as an Army infantryman. “Why walk when you can ride?” Alston said with a laugh.
After about six weeks in boot camp in San Diego, Alston reported to Long Beach for his first duty on the USS California. He was assigned to the deck crew’s division two, port side, which mostly meant cleaning, painting, and maintaining a section of the six hundred-and-forty-foot-long, 30,000-ton battlewagon. On October 1, 1941, they set sail for Pearl Harbor.
Just nine weeks later, in the midst of the Japanese attack, a frightening thought leaped into Alston’s mind: I could die here. He has no good explanation for why he didn’t. Alston said he and the other boys who escaped from the burning and sunken ships instantly bounded with a common purpose: to avenge the attack that killed thousands of their brother sailors. They slept together on cots in a hangar and then squeezed into barracks or strung up hammocks in ships with less damage. Alston found a berth on the USS Maryland, a battleship that hadn’t sunk despite being hit with a bomb.
In hushed voices, the shell-shocked survivors talked about what war meant, but they had little time to ponder their good fortunate. They were on guard against another attack and they got to work to salvage and help repair America’s devastated Pacific Fleet. Alston was assigned watch duty and manned five-inch guns that were taken off the California and moved to the nearby gunnery range.
In time Alston was assigned to the West Virginia, which was fitted with temporary patches to its hull, refloated, and moved to a dry dock for repairs. He helped hook up hoses to pump tens of thousands of gallons of fuel and oil and contaminated water to barges. He was among a group that went below deck to pull up bedding, furniture, and other debris. They found dead bodies.
“When we came across a body we hollered up ‘There’s a body down here!’ ” Alston recalled. Marine corpsmen and medics clamored down and retrieved the body, placed him in a bag, and carried him away. Alston remembers the stench. “It stunk. That old oil stinks anyway.”
On their uniforms they wore white tape that had been treated with some kind of chemical. This was their canary in the coalmine. If the tape turned purple they were in danger of being asphyxiated by vapors and they were ordered to a platform that another sailor above cranked to carry them out of the hold and into the fresh air.
Alston learned firsthand the sad story of how, in rare moments of quiet after the attack, rescuers had heard faint sounds on the West Virginia. Bang, bang, bang. The noise came from somewhere below. Old-timers told Alston that sailors had been trapped deep below in an compartment that still had some air. They were banging on pipes. But the sailors above were helpless to save them because even if divers could isolate where they were and cut the ship open the pressure and overwhelming surge of water would drown those trapped and possibly kill the would-be rescuers. Bang. Bang. Bang. Salvage crews eventually found the bodies of three men huddled in an airtight storeroom. They hadn’t drowned; they died from a lack of oxygen and may have lived until December 23. The crew found a calendar with them on which sixteen days had been crossed off in red pencil.
In 1943, Alston was on the West Virginia as it sailed back to the West Coast for final repairs and modernization with more weaponry. It returned to service in 1944 as the tide turned in favor of the United States. Alston and the West Virginia took part in major battles that helped America take control of the Pacific: the October 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf, the retaking of the Philippines, and the deadly 1945 battles for the strategic islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where thousands of Marines died in gruesome combat against entrenched Japanese soldiers hidden in vast networks of caves.
Off the Philippines, Alston said he watched as five Japanese kamikaze planes plunged from the sky to try to ram into the ship. Four of the suiciders crashed or were shot down. But the fifth crushed into a superstructure deck just forward of a secondary battery, killing four men and injuring seven. Luckily, the aircraft’s bomb didn’t go off and West Virginia crewmembers carefully dislodged the unexploded weapon and dropped it overboard, Alston said.
The ship sailed to New Zealand for repairs and then joined the fleet for the attack on Iwo Jima, where it bombarded Japanese hideouts. On February 23, 1945, from his position offshore, Alston witnessed six GIs raise a U.S. flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, a ceremony that was staged twice. The photograph of the second flag raising captured by Associated Press photographer Al Rosenthal instantly became the war’s most famous shot.
On September 2, 1945, Alston was on the West Virginia’s deck in Tokyo Bay Japanese officials joined Admiral Chester Nimitz, General Douglas MacArthur, other allied commanders on the nearby USS Missouri to sign the instrument of surrender, officially ending the war weeks after the United States dropped atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Alston was discharged in October and returned to Texas. He drifted to Lubbock where he helped a relative harvest wheat and then returned to Temple and landed a job as a truck driver at a Veterans Administration hospital. In 1949, he married a local girl, Arita June, and they had two daughters. He remained at the VA for thirty-four years in a variety of positions, including as fire department crew chief and supervisor of laundry service. After nearly sixty years of marriage, his wife suffered a heart attack and died in February 2008.
It took many, many years before Alston was able to forgive the Japanese, but forgive he has. The widower often tells his story to schoolchildren and attends veterans’ reunions and events. He has returned to Pearl Harbor many times and had served as the president of the Central Texas chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors’ Association, which disbanded in 2011 because so few survivors are alive and many of those who remain are too ill or frail to travel.
On December 7, 2012, Alston was one of four Pearl Harbor survivors to attend ceremonies commemorating the battle at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. A year later he was the lone survivor to attend.
Before I left his home and walked into the darkness, Alston presented me a copy of the official document of surrender that ended the war and a spectacular color photograph of the memorial in Pearl Harbor that stands atop of the entombed USS Arizona. A perfect rainbow stretched from horizon to horizon directly over the site.