Pearl Harbor: Sailor looks back on ‘date of infamy’
Sun News Service
GRASS VALLEY, Calif. – Seven Japanese torpedoes hammered the port side of the USS West Virginia as it sat in port at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.
Grass Valley’s William “Bill” Dobbins, then a seaman aboard the Colorado-class battleship, was getting ready to go to church on shore that Sunday.
Now 90, Dobbins, reaches across a small blue counter in his kitchen for a tissue as he recalls events of that day 69 years ago. His eyes squeeze shut and his pitch rises, describing the first time he watched a ship sink.
“When you watch a ship go down, every sailor gets a tear, because even if it isn’t your own, you know how much work went into it,” Dobbins said.
The “WeeVee,” as he called the ship, didn’t impress the young sailor at first sight. Dobbins had entered the U.S. Navy as “a dumb, country kid” from Kansas City, Mo., and first glimpsed the “can” in harbor in Washington state in 1940.
His brow furrows and eyes squint with memory.
“I looked at that giant chunk of iron there and thought, ‘S—, I’m not getting on that thing. Iron doesn’t float,'” Dobbins recalled. “It turns out it would sink, but not because of that.”
Dobbins is one of a dwindling number of Pearl Harbor survivors. Of the 60,000 military personnel on the island of Oahu at the time of the attack, 3,000 survivors are actively participating in events marking the historic occasion today, according to a recent story in USA Today.
The West Virginia sat in the harbor between the more famed USS Arizona and the USS Oklahoma. The Oklahoma went down with all hands. The Arizona suffered a massive explosion, grabbing headlines across the country.
The West Virginia, tied off to the neighboring USS Tennessee, listed to its side, but, due to the ropes, didn’t roll all the way over like the Oklahoma did. And it didn’t capture the public’s attention like the Arizona did – a sign of disrespect, in Dobbins’ estimation.
“The U.S. propaganda machine didn’t mention the WeeVee or the Oklahoma,” Dobbins said. He accused the military of having used the added drama of the Arizona’s plight to stir the nation to war. “But, I guess they had a good PR man, and the Arizona made all the reels.”
West Virginia survivors were reassigned to other ships in the tense days following Dec. 7. Dobbins’ orders put him on board the USS Dewey, a destroyer tasked with finding and escorting the aircraft carrier USS Lexington back to Pearl Harbor; the ship had been at sea during the attack.
The attack spawned confusion in the Navy, and when the Dewey confronted the Lexington to ascertain whether Japanese sailors commandeered the ship, tense moments followed, Dobbins said.
“Everyone had a big book with signals for every day of the year,” Dobbins said. “So we signaled to challenge them, and they didn’t signal back. After a couple times, our captain said he would bring the boat around for a torpedo run.”
Dobbins carefully traces the positions of the two boats on his blue counter top.
The Lexington’s guns were feared throughout the Navy for their size and accuracy, and the Dewey’s crew knew what sort of response their torpedoes were bound to elicit.
As he talks, Dobbins’ hands ball into a fist.
“Our captain said we’d signal them one more time before we fired,” Dobbins said. “And every sailor on that ship just about s— himself.”
At the last minute, the Lexington signaled back, triggering a wave of relief aboard the Dewey, Dobbins said.
Dobbins went on to serve throughout the World War II Pacific campaign, and, as a career sailor who attained the rank of chief bosun, saw action off the coasts of Korea and Vietnam. He taught at a command school in San Diego, Calif., before retiring in 1970 at the age of 50.
An array of medals hang on a framed, blue panel in his home, but Dobbins barely lifts a finger to point the keepsake out before moving on to artwork painted by his late wife’s sister.
“I can’t even tell you what those are for,” he said, picking his walker up and shuffling away from the wood-paneled wall.
Like his irritation at the West Virginia’s short-changed reputation, he doesn’t hide his animosity for some aspects of military service, including what he considers undeserved accolades for current soldiers.
“When you sign up to serve, you’ve got to do the job and everything that goes with it,” Dobbins said. “So when you see a kid get his picture in the paper before he even goes off to serve now, I don’t get it. He’s a punk as far as I’m concerned. You also see where a whole town will go to the airport to welcome a guy home. He’s just doing his job. He’s not a hero.”
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