Paul Kennedy was expecting to sleep in on the morning of December 7, 1941. He had been on deck duty on board the U.S.S. Sacramento at Pearl Harbor until 4 a.m., then grabbed coffee with a buddy and hadn’t gone to bed until 5:30 a.m. So, when alarms sounded at around 8 a.m. as a swarm of Japanese warplanes began a ferocious assault on the U.S. Naval Base, Kennedy thought it was a drill and tried to tune it out.
“I put the pillow over my ear,” he told HISTORY in a 2016 interview. “My buddy saw that I wasn’t responding, so he pulled the covers off and said in so many words, ‘Get up and go! We’re under attack—grab your gas mask and helmet,’ which I did. I didn’t even put on any pants.”
Soon, a chilling encounter with one of the Japanese pilots who was dropping torpedoes on the U.S. fleet that morning, would become seared in Kennedy’s memory.
The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor not only took then-21-year-old Kennedy by surprise, it shocked the nation. The attacks, which killed 2,400 Americans and wounded 1,200, struck a devastating blow against the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Five U.S. battleships, three destroyers and seven other ships were taken out and more than 200 aircraft were lost in the rain of Japanese bombs and gunfire. The assault pulled the United States into a war that it had, until then, resisted joining. The following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 "a date which will live in infamy" and Congress declared war on Japan.
For Kennedy, who described feeling “so much anger” as the day unfolded, the start of the attack was particularly ominous. After being roused by his shipmate, Kennedy, still in his underwear, ran up a ladder to the ship’s deck. As soon as he emerged, he was overwhelmed by an approaching Japanese fighter plane.
“Right above me, about 20 feet above my head, was a torpedo plane with a big torpedo,” Kennedy recalled. “And that’s not a way to wake up.” As the plane approached, Kennedy said he was close enough to see right into the cockpit.
“He was going low and slow, because he was getting ready to drop that torpedo as soon as he cleared our ship,” Kennedy said. “And he had his canopy back and was looking down at me—and I was looking up at him. I guess I looked pretty funny in my shorts and my skivvies.” Kennedy said he later learned the pilot was Mitsuo Fuchida, a captain in the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service who is credited with leading the first wave of attacks at Pearl Harbor.
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The torpedo Kennedy saw Fuchido drop would detonate on the U.S.S. Oklahoma, which, within 20 minutes, was overturned on its side. Kennedy remembered seeing some men blown into the air “like rag dolls” and others “scrambling for their lives, climbing over the hull of the ship. It was a sad, sad sight.”
In the end, 429 crewmen on board the Oklahoma were killed. Kennedy was horrified by the sight but had no time to dwell on the tragedy. He suited up and ran to his station on a flying bridge to hoist flags as a signalman. Then Kennedy experienced his own brush with death as he saw a Japanese fighter plane drop a bomb on the nearby U.S.S. Pennsylvania and then bank toward his own ship.
“He starts strafing,” Kennedy recalled. “I didn’t have any protection and I feared—this is it, I’ve had it. There were bullets landing all around me. I could hear them hitting the deck. I heard them …hitting and hitting, making chips on the deck. But he missed.”
Kennedy survived that day and went on to serve in the war through July 1945 on two other ships, including a submarine-chaser and the USS Poole, a destroyer. While serving on the Poole, Kennedy earned a Purple Heart after being hit by machine-gun fire from a German submarine. But for Kennedy, death never felt as close as it had on December 7, 1941 when he dodged bullets and saw dozens of bodies of his fellow sailors in their white uniforms floating face-down in Pearl Harbor’s oil-soaked waters.
The devastating Japanese attack took the nation by surprise, but it failed to deliver the decisive blow Japan had hoped for against the U.S. Pacific Fleet. No U.S. aircraft carriers were at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack and the Japanese assault failed to take out U.S. ammunition sites. And, as for morale, Kennedy said that, while he and his fellow seamen were caught off guard, they quickly settled in for a fight.
“There was nobody on the Sacramento who was out of control, crying for their mother, or crying at all,” Kennedy said, adding that everyone did “what they were trained to do. I was real proud of my ship.”
Paul Ivan Kennedy died on December 2, 2017. He was 96 years old.