Ed Johann was aboard USS Solace, a hospital ship, in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese military attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Though he rescued many casualties, what he remembers most aren't the heroics, but the horrors, the fires, the men. He was only 17.
Johann had joined the military before the war to receive the salary - $21 a month, sending $10 home each month to his parents. Johann said the "hard times," the Great Depression, hit his family and the money he could send home from the Navy was a "big plus" for them.
Johann worked as part of a sort of taxi service, taking men to the PX for supplies, to visit family and friends or to the mainland to walk on solid ground.
"The morning of Dec. 7 we were already down at the end of the gangway, taking the fellas that wanted to do that, when the attack started,” he said.
"Pearl Harbor turned into a harbor of hell in a short while," he said. More than 2,000 servicemen would die, and another more than 1,100 would be wounded. Johann and his fellow seamen began pulling bodies from the bay. "We handled the first [American] casualties of World War II that morning."
"I just a young kid, practically. I was a boy sailor. All I could think about was trying to help the other fellas. A lot of them were injured, some were calm. A lot were injured; some were screaming in shock and pain. There were a lot of burns.
"Some of the oil in the water was on fire . ... If you went to pull guys out of the water by their arm, skin would just slip off . ...
"And all this time, the planes were bombing, the planes were strapping, the planes were dropping torpedoes. The casualties were stacking up faster than we could handle them because of the intensifying of that."
Even so, the men on Solace continued to save men, eventually earning Johann a commendation from his service, particularly because he "went alongside of the burning USS Arizona in order to rescue casualties while the crew of that ship were abandoning ship."
Johann said that the next day, the wounded dead were taken to the mainland. "They didn't have dog tags yet. They just had tags tied on their big toes, says 'unknown, unknown.'"
Johann would go on to serve in the Pacific theater, including Guadalcanal among others, and was discharged in 1945.
"After the war was over, then we could breathe easy, but by then I was well-trained on these battle scenes."
The experience of that terrifying day impacted the rest of his life, but not in the way one might expect.
"I figured if I live through this I’m gonna spend the rest of my life trying to save people, which is why I got into the fire department and mountain rescue afterwards," he said. Johann went on to serve as a firefighter in Oregon for nearly 30 years.
He lives in a cottage he built in Lincoln City, Ore.
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