Pearl Harbor survivor, 1 of 24 USS Arizona ex-crewmen left, remembers the day of infamy
Clarendon Robert Hetrick has no trouble remembering exactly where and when he learned to swim.
It was in Hawaii. Pearl Harbor. Dec. 7, 1941.
Hetrick, then 18 years old, was a specialist first class in the U.S. Navy. But there was a rub: He hadn’t been able to pass the Navy’s swimming test.
Maybe he just needed the right motivation. And that’s what happened that morning – 67 years ago.
Hetrick was assigned to the battleship USS Arizona. On that date and on that ship, tragic American military history was made.
The Arizona was, of course, lost, taking with it 1,177 men. Most died immediately, some later from injuries sustained when the Japanese attacked the American fleet in Pearl Harbor.
Some 335 Arizona crew members survived the attack to continue the fight. But over the ensuing decades, almost all have died. Every year, their ranks get smaller; one of the Arizona survivors died last weekend in Florida.
Today, only about 24 former crew members of the Arizona are alive. And only one – Hetrick, now 85 – lives in Arizona. He moved to Bullhead City about three years ago.
Hetrick’s memory of the events of Dec. 7, 1941, is as sharp today as it was then. He worked on the kitchen staff of the mammoth battleship. That year, Dec. 7 fell on a Sunday, as will 2008′s.
“I served breakfast to the 15 people whom I normally served about 6 a.m.,” Hetrick recalled. By the time he finished cleaning up after the meal, it was 7:30 or 7:45 a.m.
He then headed for a bathroom to prepare for the day. “I was about half-shaved when all hell broke loose,” Hetrick said. He stuck his head outside and saw a low-flying plane.
“There was a big red ball (the Japanese rising sun) on the side of an airplane and I knew what was going on,” he said.
Hetrick was ordered to report to the aft magazine – the area below the Arizona’s big guns where ammunition was stored. He and other seamen helped send up shells to be loaded in the ship’s heavy guns as the Arizona fought for its survival.
As they worked, a tremendous boom – probably ammunition in the front magazine exploding – rocked the ship, and the Arizona started sinking.
The deck, which had been about 15 feet high, soon was barely a foot above the water as the Arizona settled on the bottom of the harbor.
“I took off my shoes and swam over to Ford Island,” Hetrick said. “I couldn’t pass the swimming test, but I sure made it that day.”
Although more than a thousand men died on the Arizona, Hetrick wasn’t hurt. “Just my feelings,” he said. “I lost my home, but I didn’t get hurt.”
Hetrick spent the rest of that day and night aboard the Tennessee, a sister battleship. He was given a rifle to fight off the Japanese, but by then, the attackers had completed their mission and were gone.
He later served aboard two aircraft carriers – the Lexington and the Saratoga – during the war in the Pacific. Hetrick was on the Saratoga when it participated in the invasion of Iwo Jima.
He was injured the night of the invasion when five kamikazes attacked the carrier. Hetrick was awarded a Purple Heart.
After the war, Hetrick left the Navy and joined the Air Force. In 1961, he retired from the military and became an agriculture labor contractor in California.
He’s been back to Hawaii several times, visiting the gleaming white memorial that rests in Pearl Harbor above the remains of the USS Arizona.
When the Arizona was scrapped, the superstructure and other parts were cut off and stored in a lonely area of a Honolulu military base, where they remain today.
On one of Hetrick’s visits, the Navy presented him with a foot-square piece of iron cut from those remains – a memorial he treasures.
Every five years, the dwindling number of Arizona survivors returns to Pearl Harbor for a reunion. They met in 2006 and plan to return in 2011.
Vowed Hetrick, “God willing, I’ll be there.”
Mark Kimble appears at 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. Contact him at 573-4662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A ceremony commemorating the sinking of the USS Arizona will begin 11 a.m. Sunday at the University of Arizona.
The event will be at Gallagher Theater, inside the Student Union. A bell from the ship will be rung as part of the observance.
Budd Nease of Murrieta, Calif., who is retired from the U.S. Navy, keeps track of USS Arizona survivors as historian of the USS Arizona Reunion Association.
This month, 64 members of the association are traveling to Hawaii to observe the 67th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Among those making the trip are four survivors of the ship and one former crew member.
Find more information about the USS Arizona survivors online at www.ussarizona.org.