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Phoenix resident recalls Pearl Harbor attack

Bob Bangs will never forget that fateful Sunday morning 71 years ago today.

He was a young sailor on duty on the engineering deck of the USS Maryland anchored alongside the USS Oklahoma in Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Shortly after 7 a.m., he heard the first alarm for the ship's "Away, Fire and Rescue Parties" to answer another ship's distress call. He ran topside.

That's when he witnessed the billowing smoke, booming bombs and chattering machine guns in the chaos of the surprise attack by Japanese military aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941.

"My thoughts have faded a little bit, but I still think about it and of the people I knew who were killed or injured at Pearl Harbor," said Bangs, 92, of Phoenix. "I haven't forgotten them."

Nor has the veteran of World War II and the Korean War forgotten the hard lessons he learned from war.

"The one thing I think of mostly now on the anniversary is that World War II and the Korean War did not end war," he said. "I was hoping these wars would bring peace on Earth and an end to all wars. I am so disappointed that did not happen."

"You hope and hope, but it sometimes looks like we are going to be in war forever," he added.

Bangs is one of the last remaining survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack in the region. He and his wife, Betty, live in Phoenix.

In 2000, there were about 50 members of the Crater Lake chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which included Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties. But the chapter, which formed in 1974, no longer meets: Old age is quietly succeeding where bombs and bullets failed that day.

The attack killed 2,117 American sailors and marines, 218 soldiers and 68 civilians. It left 18 ships sunk or disabled, including the Maryland and Oklahoma. The Japanese, who lost only 29 planes, destroyed about 200 American aircraft.

And it plunged the United States into World War II.

Hailing from Southern California, Bangs was 17 when he joined the Navy in 1938. He became a chief during his eight years in the Navy, then joined the Army to serve as a commissioned officer, retiring as a major in 1960. During the Korean War in 1951-52, he was awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious service.

Aboard the USS Maryland, his job as metal smith included everything from welding to various repair jobs. He was also one of the ship's divers.

The ship in distress his crew was sent to help was the Oklahoma, which was hit numerous times and rolled over, going belly up. He estimates that within 20 minutes of the attack, he and other metal smiths and ship fitters were deployed to the Oklahoma.

He can tell you about standing on the upsidedown hull of the Oklahoma and glancing up to see bombers flying over. But he and his fellow sailors didn't have time to think about the danger. Their job was to rescue trapped sailors.

Unfortunately, the ship's thick armored plate made it nearly impossible.

"It was almost futile," he said. "I think we got about 32 people out before we were ordered back to our own ship."

The "Fighting Mary," originally launched in 1920, had been hit by two 500-pound bombs. She had a hole in the bow just below the waterline.

Although the Japanese declared the Maryland was one of the ships they sank, she was temporarily at Pearl Harbor before being sailed to the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash., for major repairs. Known as one of the "Big Five" because she was one of five battleships with 16-inch guns, she was back in action by February of 1942.

Over the next two years, her enormous firepower would be used in the amphibious assaults on the Gilbert islands, the Marshalls and Tarawa. She would be struck at least twice by torpedoes but would survive the war.

Bangs remained aboard her until he was transferred back to Ford Island in Pearl Harbor late in 1944.

On Sept. 2, 1945, Petty Officer First Class Bangs was sitting in a coffee shop on Ford Island when a loudspeaker announced the war with Japan was over. He figures he was perhaps 100 yards from where he was when the war started.

"It was really coincidental I was there at the beginning and finish of that war," Bangs observed.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Bob Bangs of Phoenix was in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, aboard the USS Maryland, which was hit by two 500-pound bombs. - Bob Pennell