BILOXI — After he joined the military in the early 1940s, A.C. Hillman and his fellow Marines learned they were being moved to Pearl Harbor.
They had never heard of the place, but were excited when they found out it was in Hawaii. In fact, much of the nation had never heard of Pearl Harbor at the time, but it would be forever associated with the bloody Dec. 7, 1941 attack, that provoked the United States to enter World War II. It all happened 68 years ago Monday.
Hillman, 89, who now lives in Lucedale, was aboard the battleship USS California when the Japanese attacked. Hillman said he was headed to see a friend on the ship when the order for "general quarters" came. He looked out a gun port and saw two planes over the USS Pennsylvania dropping aerial torpedoes that headed for the ship.
"They came straight at us," Hillman said. "I didn't know what to do. My life passed before me in about three seconds."
When a bomb exploded below deck, it set off an anti-aircraft ammunition magazine that killed about 50 men, and by the end of the fighting at Pearl Harbor, 98 of the ship's crewmen were lost and 61 were wounded, according to the California State Military Department.
Hillman was at a gun position high above deck during the fighting. His ammunition lasted about five minutes. The damaged California lost power, so more shells couldn't be sent up. Hillman had to sit helplessly. He could see inside the cockpits of passing planes.
Many other ships were hit. Hillman saw the USS Arizona blow up in an attack that killed 1,177 crewmen. He also saw the USS Oklahoma turn over after being hit by torpedoes — about 400 crewmen were killed. It all happened so fast, he said.
"It was on us just like ants on a piece of bread."
The California began to sink into the mud and only the superstructure remained above the waterline. Hillman said the order to abandon ship came and he had to swim to Ford Island, which is in the middle of Pearl Harbor. Fuel and oil on the surface had caught fire, leaving large areas of burning sea, which forced Hillman and the others to swim underwater for much of the distance. Hillman tried to climb aboard a boat headed to the island, but a sailor told him he couldn't ride.
"He stepped on my hand and made me get off," Hillman said. "That's when I liked to have drowned."
The attack was over not long after Hillman had made it to the island.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war the day after the bombing, gave his famous remark that the attack made Dec. 7 "a date which will live in infamy." He tried to assure the shocked and grieving nation it could win.
No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory," Roosevelt said. "I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again."
The president was given the declaration of war; not long after, Japan's allies, Italy and Germany, declared war on the United States.
The heavily damaged California underwent an extensive repair job and returned to sea in January 1944. In January 1945, the ship was hit by a kamikaze plane while bombarding the shore at Lingayen Gulf and 44 crewmen were killed and 155 wounded. The ship was repaired and continued to fight. It was taken out of commission in 1947 and scrapped in 1959.
Hillman served from the prewar days in 1940 until six months after the end of the war, participating in several major campaigns. He was shot in the ribcage on Iwo Jima when he landed with the first wave as a member of the 5th Marine Division. He continued to fight after he recovered.
By the war's end, some 400,000 Americans and 48.2 million people worldwide had died. Hillman thought he would come home after the Japanese surrendered, but he was sent to Japan for six months. He was given the option to re-enlist and go to Guam, but after being away from home for so long, he decided to go back to the United States. Hillman, a native of Greene County, eventually moved to Lucedale, which is in George County, and met his wife. They've been married for more than 60 years.
Pearl Harbor's anniversary is often marked with memorial services in remembrance of those who died and flags on state property will fly at half-staff.
People still ask Hillman about Dec. 7, 1941 quite often, he said.
"I was lucky."
Michael Newsome/The Sun Herald (MCT)