Remembering attack, capture and an unexpected relationship 71 years after Pearl Harbor
Friday marked the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. Biographer and photojournalist Peter Tobia submits this story as told by his father in 1994 on the occasion of the 53rd anniversary of the attack.
I enlisted in the United States Navy on February 28, 1940. After completing boot training in Newport, R.I., I was selected to attend Aviation Machinist Mate School in Pensacola, Fla. I graduated four months later and was assigned to VP-23, a PBY squadron located at Pearl Harbor.
I arrived at Pearl Harbor on October 15, 1940, and in the early part of 1941, the squadron was designated as VP-11 and was moved to Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, I was inside our hangar installing self-sealing gas tanks in the PBY's wings when all "hell broke loose." A squadron of Japanese dive-bombers attacked our hangar followed by another group of aircraft that strafed the planes just outside the hangar.
With the help of my shipmate, the two of us managed to get hold of a 50-caliber machine gun and place it just outside the hangar, facing the bay and the mountains in the direction the Japanese planes were coming from on their attack run. We fired off a number of rounds and, in the flurry of retaliation by our squadron, downed one of their planes.
The damage caused by the enemy aircraft was extensive. Eleven men were killed and all of our planes were damaged, some beyond repair. For several months, day and night, all hands "turned to," and we were able to get back on our feet and ready for flight operations.
In VP-11 I was advanced to Aviation Machinist Mate First Class and qualified as a plane captain. I was responsible for ensuring that my aircraft was ready to fly at a moment's notice.
During the months of August and September in 1942, while operating from Esperito Santos, an island in the South Pacific, we were involved in several incidents with Japanese aircraft and submarines. The day after the invasion of Tulagi, we flew in to pick up a wounded marine and several other personnel. As we took off in the early dawn, a Japanese submarine fired on us, but we were able to escape unharmed.
On another occasion, while returning from a patrol mission, two of our planes encountered and engaged a Japanese four-engine flying boat. In the exchange of fire, my best friend, who was also a plane captain, was hit by a bullet that passed between the gun turret he was manning and the armored skin of the aircraft. He died before we returned to base.
On September 11, 1942, while on patrol near the Solomon Islands, we sighted a Japanese destroyer just as we were about to return to our base. As we started to make a bombing run, out of nowhere two Japanese Zero Fighters configured with floats came from behind firing away at us. After several passes, both of our engines were gone, and we were forced down at sea.
The Japanese destroyer riddled our aircraft with gunfire before taking us aboard where we were interrogated and beaten. Later that night we were transferred to a cruiser, where we spent 10 days in isolation. After the 10 days, we were blindfolded and taken to Truk Island. We were isolated for 10 more days and then taken to Japan by cargo ship to a prison camp called Ofuna.
I remained at the Ofuna interrogation camp for approximately one year before being transferred to the Yokohama Stadium, which had been converted into a prison camp. While at this camp I was forced to work at the Asano Shipyard seven days a week for approximately one and a half years. In June of 1945 I was moved from Yokohama to a steel mill located in the northern part of Japan. There we worked every day repairing the wheel bearings on the boxcars used to transport iron ore from the mountains to the mills. At times we gathered tender grass from the mountain side to supplement our daily meager ration of rice and fish.
The barracks I lived in were located close to the coast line. In July and August 1945, we were badly shelled by the Sixth Fleet, causing great damage to the steel mill and destroying the barracks. One of the shells hit the peak of the mountain cave, killing 30 men who were inside.
The end of the war
It was shortly after that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our first indication that something catastrophic had happened was one morning when the Japanese Camp Commandant announced that the war was over. My three years as a Japanese prisoner of war had ended.
When I returned to the United States, I was admitted to the Oakland Naval Hospital and later to the Chelsea Naval Hospital in Boston for extensive medical examinations. For my war service, I was awarded the Air Medal, the Combat Air Crew Wings with three stars, and a Purple Heart. I retired from the Navy in 1960 after 20 years of military service.
An unexpected correspondence
In 1991, 49 years after WWII began, I received a package from Japan containing a letter, a photograph and a sketch of a PBY in flames and sinking in the water. I immediately opened the letter and began to read it. As I read, I felt a chill go through my entire body when I realized that the person who sent me the package was Lt. Homare — the gunnery officer of the Japanese destroyer Murasame that had fired upon and sunk our PBY.
He expressed his heartfelt compassion and condolences for the hardship he had inflicted upon us. It was difficult for me to accept such a powerful letter as this after so many years.
Lt. Homare and I still correspond after all these years and we have developed a congenial relationship. In his latest letter he included a map of the Solomon Sea Battle, dated March 15, 1943, which depicted where his ship, Murasame was hit by allied bombs and torpedoes and sunk with 114 men still on board. In ending his letter, he extended his best wishes for good health to my wife and me.
In 1994, I went on a Tiger Cruise aboard the USS Carl Vinson. Everyone on board was just great! It has been a long time since those days in 1940. The faces have changed, but the ships are still proud and gray, and the crew of the Carl Vinson made me feel right at home.
Written in 1994. Salvino Paul Tobia passed away on October 9, 2000.
Peter Tobia is a photojournalist and biographer living in Philadelphia.