The images of Pearl Harbor lived on for Navy veteran
By Dan Aznoff
Charles Baggarley made the long flight from the West Coast one last time in 2011 to join the scores of other Pearl Harbor survivors who gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the American naval stronghold in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The Navy veteran relived the pain of that horrendous morning as he walked past the same checkpoints he had known as an active member of the U.S. Navy six decades earlier. His last visit to the base at Pearl Harbor confirmed his conviction of how close he had come to becoming one of the first casualties of the war on that sunny Sunday morning.
The memories were amplified by his own mental images of his survival of a second early morning surprise attack weeks later while stationed at the Australian base in Darwin.
The Japanese raid on the quiet seaside town began with a sound he was far too familiar with.
The chief petty officer was enjoying the morning sun on the upper deck of the “Willie B” docked in quiet waters of Darwin Harbor when he heard the distinct drone from Japanese warplanes as the enemy approached the waterfront along the farthest northern point on the coast of Australia’s Northern Territory.
The surprise attack by Japanese forces on the American fleet in Pearl Harbor had forced the U.S. Navy to regroup its resources to the small port town in Northern Australia. Darwin Harbor had become the primary base for Allied Forces to launch B-17 bomber raids to slow the enemy’s relentless march across the Philippines.
“Willie B” was the nickname given to the USS William B. Preston (DD-579), a small destroyer that served as the gathering place for American sailors and aviators stationed in Darwin. The Preston was smaller than most of the other destroyers in the fleet, and woefully unprepared for the aerial combat that had become commonplace in the Pacific with only 4-inch guns mounted fore and aft.
The airmen stationed in Darwin Harbor, he recalled, lacked the basic training on how to load and operate the guns. The radio operator took it upon himself to train his flight mates as the enemy planes swooped overhead.
The emphasis on the swift, powerful retaliation ordered by President Roosevelt against the Japanese had left the remainder of the 7th Fleet vulnerable to attack from enemy forces poised to invade the islands of Timor and Java to the north and northwest of the Australian port.
When the enemy finally struck, the Japanese pilots launched their attacks from airfields in the Dutch East Indies. Many of the enemy pilots were from the same Japanese First Fleet that had led the attack on Pearl Harbor. The solo pilots who swooped over the Australian inlet on the morning of February 19, 1942, found 13 Australian and U.S. warships, 45 merchant vessels and a hospital ship anchored in Darwin Harbor.
“Why now?” Baggarley thought to himself. “I survived ‘The Day That Will Live in Infamy.’ All this only to perish in an attack that would be nothing more than an asterisk in the journals of war?”
The first wave of A6M Zero fighters, D3A dive bombers and B5N torpedo bombers swooped over the Australian coastline just before 10am.
And just like in Hawaii, the surprise Japanese attack on the Australian outpost had left little time to organize any defense of the naval station. There was not enough ammunition nor an adequate number of personnel trained to operate the 18 anti-aircraft guns that had been hastily installed to protect the township.
The air raid sirens in Darwin did not sound until the Zeroes had begun to strafe ships in the harbor. Eight ships were sunk in the first wave of the attack, including the American destroyer USS Peary and a seaplane tender, the USS William B. Preston.
Japanese bombs decimated the wharf, the airfield, dozens of aircraft and the Army barracks. Well-placed bombs turned storage tanks filled with oil and aviation fuel into blazing infernos.
The surprise attack that morning sank a total of 11 ships and damaged 25 others. American and Australian forces reported a total of 243 dead.
Baggarley could feel the destroyer shudder each time a dive bomber made a direct hit to the hull of the Preston. He remembered how the crew desperately maneuvered the crippled ship to escape the confines of the harbor.
“That’s when a crewman I recognized came in,” he remembered. “He was naked, an odd yellow color and not a hair on his body. His clothes had been burned off by the flash. His wide-open unseeing eyes were staring directly ahead.”
The injured crewman begged for somebody to help him to sickbay. Once he was led away by another sailor, Baggarley went aft in a frantic attempt to help others but was turned away by the harsh words from a corpsman who screamed the warning, “Get back inside! We don’t want anyone else hurt."
The enemy bombers delivered a critical blow to the integrity of the USS Preston when the Mahan-class destroyer took a direct hit from a torpedo dropped by a Zero during the first wave of the attack.
Bridge officers followed orders to take the destroyer east along the North Coast of Australia.
Shifts were short that day. Baggarley was on watch that afternoon when he reported the approach of a single Japanese plane.
The airman tracked the aircraft as it appeared on the horizon. He observed the solo pilot drop his torpedoes in the water about 100 yards behind the “Willie B.” The deadly projectiles, he wrote, missed their targets by a wide margin.
Temporary repairs were made to the steering mechanism of the Preston before the sun set that evening. The ship stopped briefly for a solemn ceremony on the evening of February 19 to commit the bodies of 11 crew members to the sea. Ten of the dead were with the ship’s company. The other was an Australian naval officer from the Sydney suburb of Redfern.
“I have often thought that [the probability] that [if] I had been aft at the machine gun station that I would [have been one of the bodies] over the side that night in a blanket,” he reflected. “Or I could have been left in small bits in Darwin Harbor.”
After struggling to overcome a score of mechanical challenges before finally reaching a friendly port, Baggarley and many of the wingless airmen disembarked onto the tranquil docks in the port of Perth in early March. The grounded crew made their way back to San Francisco aboard the former passenger liner George Washington, which had been painted grey and renamed the USS Mount Vernon.
Back to Pearl
In December of 1941, Baggarley was the radio operator with VP-22, a PBY flying boat reconnaissance squadron based on Ford Island in the middle of bustling Pearl Harbor. The PBY aircraft were twin engine amphibious aircraft used primarily by the Navy during World War II for maritime patrols, reach and rescue missions, and occasionally as bombers.
His unit had returned from two weeks of live depth charge training on Midway Island late on Friday evening. Charles had returned to his barracks at 0330 with hopes for a good night’s sleep after a brief visit to some of his favorite “watering holes.”
The 20-year-old Navy aviation mechanic was awakened just before 0800 by what he first thought were flyovers by some of the hotshot fighter pilots stationed on one of the carriers based at Pearl.
He knew the planes overhead were not part of a drill when he saw the rising sun painted on the tail of each plane, and later learned the sounds were from the second wave of Japanese bombers to strike the base that morning.
“We never thought the Japanese would attack,” he told a reporter several years later. “We never even talked about the possibility.”
Baggarley witnessed the devastation as he stood in his bare feet on shards of broken glass with several of his shipmates at the front door of his barracks that had been blown out by the concussion of the repeated explosions.
Utilizing the survival skills he discovered as a young man on the farm in the Goodnoe Hills community of Washington near the Columbia River, Charles sprinted across the open field toward the hangar where his plane had been parked. Instinctively, he dove for cover in the ditches that had been dug along the dirt path as Japanese planes raced over his head.
Baggarley was the first member of the squadron crew to reach the hangar. He stood in silence as other members of the PBY squadron gathered around him, where the doors to the hangar had been, to survey the damage inflicted to the 13 aircraft.
The only evidence of his own plane were two wingtips he found jutting out of the floor of what remained of the makeshift structure. There was no sign of his flight log or his beloved leather flight jacket.
“All around us a war was going on,” he wrote.
The radioman distinctly remembered that he was able to see the bottom of the battleship Oklahoma in the channel and what was left of the destroyer Shaw that had erupted into a ball of fire in dry dock across the harbor.
Crew members mounted machine guns from the destroyed planes to use against waves of enemy planes. Civilians appeared on the base to push the broken fuselages of planes off the runway.
“The harbor was full of ships in various stages of destruction. Every usable 30- and 50-caliber machine gun from our own planes were manned and firing at the dive bombers pulling out of their dives.”
Stopping to catch his breath, Baggarley remembered he saw the battleship Nevada make its way down the channel to escape the “man-made hell.” Her 26-inch guns could hurl a one-ton projectile more than 20 miles but were useless against enemy fighters at close range.
Charles looked across the harbor and watched helplessly as he silently prayed for the Nevada as she steamed toward open water at the end of the channel.
“We so wanted that ship and its gallant crew to survive and win.”
The sight of bombs splashing in the water all around the huge ship with every gun on its deck pointed skyward made Baggarley think about the events that “inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words for the Star Spangled Banner as he watched the bombardment of Fort MacHenry (McHenry).”
“Oh, say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Baggarley concluded his written commentary about that horrific morning with the two-word phrase, “You bet!”
When Baggarley’s thoughts returned to his own actions on the morning of December 7, 1941, he realized how much more tragic the day could have been if the Japanese had been successful in their repeated attempts to sink the Nevada in the channel, blocking the only escape route for the scores of ships and thousands of servicemen.
“The Nevada was not sunk in the channel,” he wrote. “She made it past Ford Island, and the crew beached her on the mainland of Oahu.
“She survived to fight again.”
After bearing witness to events that would be known as “The Day That Would Live in Infamy,” Baggarley spent the night in a hangar on the far side of the base. He was recruited the next morning to join the crew of a Sikorsky amphibious reconnaissance patrol.
The hulking aircraft had been designed without any armament, so each member of the crew was given a rifle with two bandoliers of ammunition before being sent out to scout hundreds of miles of open ocean for any Japanese ships in the waters east of Hawaii.
“They flew the patrols but saw no Japanese.”
The quiet sailor from farmlands of Washington took in a deep breath when he heard the pilot’s subdued words: “Nothing here. Back to Pearl.”
The words of the pilot echoed in his head, even more poignant after he had survived a second brutal attack weeks later while stationed at the Allied base in Darwin.
In his later years, Charles realized the lessons he learned protecting the skies over the Pacific from the Bering Strait to the tiny islands near New Caledonia served him well during a lifetime of taking on challenges, overcoming obstacles and walking away to fly another day.
His was a life well lived.
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington. This article was taken from the content of his book "Soaring With Eagles" based on the numerous notebooks compiled by Mr. Baggarley over the course of his life. Copies of the book will be available through Amazon or at firstname.lastname@example.org.