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Sailor had ringside view of day of infamy

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Charles Wieland was up early the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The 19-year-old sailor had drawn mess duty and was in the galley helping prepare Sunday breakfast for his USS San Francisco shipmates.

It was quieter than usual, with many of the San Francisco’s crew and officers on liberty or still sleeping in their berths. The 588-foot-long heavy cruiser had been docked at Pearl Harbor’s Naval Shipyard since early October.

“We were getting ready to go into dry dock for a major overhaul,” Wieland said recently at his Rio Rancho home.

“It took us from the first part of November – taking off all the food, all the ammunition, the (gun) powder – until early December.”

The eight-year-old ship was scheduled to have her keel scraped and some of her massive guns replaced, along with a laundry list of routine repairs.

Pearl Harbor survivor Charles Wieland, 94, sits with his Chihuahua, Peanut, in his Rio Rancho home beneath mementos of his naval service during World War II. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Pearl Harbor survivor Charles Wieland, 94, sits with his Chihuahua, Peanut, in his Rio Rancho home beneath mementos of his naval service during World War II. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

At 7:55 that morning, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Less than two hours later, 21 ships had been sunk or damaged and 2,403 U.S. troops were dead.

President Franklin Roosevelt called the attack “unprovoked and dastardly,” and rightly predicted that the date would “live in infamy.” The United States declared war on Japan the next day, marking its entry into World War II.

Today, 75 years after that attack, Wieland is at Pearl Harbor, paying homage to the men and women who served and died that day.

A day of infamy

Down in the San Francisco’s galley, Wieland heard the muffled sound of explosions.

“When the Japanese planes began flying over, the bridge sounded general quarters and we all went to our battle stations,” Wieland, a slim fellow with a firm handshake and head full of gray hair that belies his 94 years, said as he began talking about that day of infamy. “But it didn’t do us much good. We had all the powder in storage on the beach.”

Wieland’s main job on the San Francisco was loading a trio of the ship’s nine 8-inch guns. The guns were housed in two forward turrets and a single aft turret.

“My battle station was the lower powder room of the No. 2 turret,” he said. “But there was no powder there that day.”

The San Francisco was docked less than 1,000 yards south of Battleship Row – between the USS New Orleans and the USS Honolulu – and had a ringside seat to the destruction.

The dive bombers concentrated on the ships around Ford Island and the nearby Hickam Field, hoping to destroy the fleet’s most lethal ships and prevent U.S. planes from engaging them or tracking them back to their aircraft carriers. Only sporadic strafing runs were made on other ships, and the San Francisco was spared.

“Nobody was answering on the ship’s power phone, so we started trying to get out of the ship,” Wieland said.

In the darkness of the powder room, Wieland asked his shipmates whether he should flick his Zippo lighter to search for a battle lantern. It was a gamble, he said, because there could have been residual dust in the powder room that could have exploded.

“You were supposed to leave cigarette lighters topside, but hardly anyone did, so they told me to go ahead and light it, and we found a battle lantern and started moving up through the ship,” he said.

As they passed the armory, a sailor shoved a Browning automatic rifle into his hands – a weapon Wieland said wasn’t much help against enemy planes. The group emerged on the ship’s fantail and saw the chaos enveloping the harbor. A few sailors fired rifles and pistols at the planes, hoping for a lucky shot, but mostly venting their anger.

The scene, Wieland said, was both surreal and horrific.

“Because of all the oil leaking from the battleships, the water was on fire,” Wieland said. “There was one motor launch out there, going around picking bodies out of the water. Some of them were dead, some were burnt.

“One of our guys was walking down the pier when he got nicked by a bullet. He was the ship’s only casualty that day,” he said.

Seven and a half decades later, one particular scene from that morning sticks in Wieland’s mind: “One of the Japanese planes came rolling by us, and the pilot flipped the canopy back and was laughing at us,” Wieland said, a tinge of disgust in his voice. “Anyway, they ended up with their butts beat.”

As the day wore on, Wieland returned to the galley to feed the crew, wondering how he – an Iowa boy who, as the oldest of his five siblings, joined the Navy to help his struggling family – had wound up in the middle of what was sure to be one hell of a war.

Because the San Francisco was undamaged in the attack, its crew was directed to get the ship combat ready.

“We had gone there to go into dry dock,” Wieland said. “We didn’t quite make it.”

It took only seven days to reload the ship.

“They has us working around the clock. Worked our butts off,” Wieland said. “We got very little sleep, just catnaps when we could.”

The San Francisco left Pearl Harbor on Dec. 14 with Task Force 14 and headed for Wake Island. For the next two years, the ship sailed throughout the Pacific as U.S. troops island-hopped their way toward Japan.

Late in the summer of 1942, Wieland was transferred to the USS Cygnus, a refrigerator ship tasked with delivering tons of food to troops stationed throughout the Pacific, for the remainder of the war.

Wieland finished his six-year Navy hitch in 1946, joined the Navy Reserve, and was reactivated for nearly two years during the Korean War, ending up as a machinist’s mate first class.

When he left the Navy for good, he worked a variety of jobs, first at the San Francisco shipyards, then with Southern Pacific Railroad. His last job was as a mechanic with Pan American World Airways, a job he held 28 years. He retired in 1982 and moved to Rio Rancho, where he met and married his third wife, Fern.

“Met her square dancing,” Wieland said wistfully. “Married her on July 5, 1986, and had 28 wonderful years with her. She died two years ago tomorrow, right here in this house.” Fern Jean Wieland died Nov. 24, 2014, three days before Thanksgiving.

Back to Pearl

Fern’s daughter, Jean Schneider, lives just a few blocks from her stepfather. She said Wieland first mentioned returning to Pearl Harbor during a family trip to Washington state in October.

“He said he wanted to go because it was the 75th anniversary – and he wasn’t sure he could make the 150th anniversary,” Schneider said with a laugh.

When they got back to Rio Rancho, Wieland had her and her husband, Duane Schneider, drive him to a local travel agency, ostensibly to check prices for the trip.

“I thought we were just getting estimates” on the cost of the trip, Jean Schneider said. “He told her the dates he wanted to go, then took out his checkbook and wrote the check.”

When she asked her stepfather if he was sure that’s what he wanted, he assured her it was.

“I’m going just to show you guys where I was,” he told her. “I want you to see it, and I want to be the one to show it to you.”

Although it’s the Schneiders’ first trip to Hawaii, it will be Wieland’s third. He took Fern there several years ago, he said, but the exact date escapes him.

“Me and my rememberer don’t remember so good anymore,” he said with a wink.