Christopherson's memories of Pearl Harbor remain vivid Bea and Darrel Christopherson by M. Jill Karolevitz After 60 years, the memories remain. And Darrel Christopherson would just as soon keep it that way.
Christopherson is a Pearl Harbor survivor. While most Americans pay little thought to the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on America � with the exception of its anniversaries � Christopherson doesn't let the "date that will live in infamy," as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it, leave his mind.
"I'm a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association," Christopherson said. "Our motto has always been 'Remember Pearl Harbor.' Every time I'm asked to talk about it, I'll tell the story. I've never reached a point where I've said enough is enough. I don't want the memory to go away."
Christopherson, a Vermillion native, joined the Navy on Feb. 12, 1941 � the day he turned 17.
"All I thought about was joining the Navy to see the world," he said. "I had no idea we'd be involved in a war within a year."
Christopherson was eventually assigned to the USS Vestal.
"The ship had two crews � a repair force and ship's company, which I was attached to," he said. "I was a coxswain of one of the motor launches that did everything from hauling liberty parties to and from shore, to bringing in supplies."
On Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941, the Vestal was at Pearl Harbor, moored to the USS Arizona to begin repairs the following Monday. The Japanese attack on Sunday, Dec. 7, however, changed all that.
Christopherson was in sick bay as the attack began.
"We heard the aircraft buzzing the bay," he said. "We looked through the portholes and as soon as they flew over, we could see the red ball under the wings and we knew they were Japanese planes."
The 600-foot Vestal was in a precarious situation, as it was tied to the battleship Arizona � a prime target of the Japanese bombers. A general quarters alarm was sounded on the Vestal, and the 650-man crew headed to their battle stations.
"Those of us who were in sick bay weren't that sick so we got dressed and headed topside to try and do something to help," Christopherson said. "But the only weapon we had to fight back with was a 3-inch antiaircraft gun � and that jammed after the third round."
In the meantime, the Vestal was hit twice by armor-piercing bombs.
"We took two hits � one forward that exploded in a storeroom and another aft that went all the way out through the bottom," Christopherson said.
As a fire raged in the storeroom, Christopherson was one of the crew members who worked to put it out.
"There was a compartment next to the storeroom where the bomb hit," he said. "It was mostly filled with baled rags and trying to put out that fire was like trying to put out burning hay bales. They were packed so tight they burned forever."
During one of the blasts, the Vestal's skipper, Captain Cassin Young, was thrown overboard. The executive officer then gave the order to abandon ship.
"But our captain was able to swim back and once he was back on board and heard the executive officer's order, he said 'Abandon ship � hell! We're going to get under way!'"
It took the Vestal's crew about 15 minutes to cut the cables that had attached them to the Arizona, which was under heavy bombardment and eventually sank with over 1,000 sailors on board. The Vestal then crossed the channel and was run aground at Aiea Landing.
"The Vestal wasn't a combat ship, so we weren't a target," Christopherson said. "They didn't bother us once we got away from the Arizona."
But all Christopherson and the Vestal crew could do was watch the horrible destruction taking place at Pearl Harbor � much like most of the Americans who watched helplessly as terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Despite comparisons made between Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11 tragedy, Christopherson is quick to point out that there is little common ground between the two incidents.
"The only thing they have in common is that they were both surprise attacks," Christopherson said. "More people were lost in the terrorist attacks than at Pearl Harbor � with the majority being civilians. And Pearl Harbor was one military group against another.
"Everyone who goes into the military service knows that at anytime they can be put in harm's way," he continued. "Those civilians never had a choice or a prayer. At least we had a chance to fight back at Pearl Harbor. These people didn't."
Christopherson also supports the war against terrorism.
"We need to fight terrorism," he said. "We can't have people coming in here and killing innocent people."
In the days immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack, Christopherson and his fellow crew members resumed their duties as soon as the Vestal was repaired.
"We were kept busy," he said. "We didn't have much time to sit and think about what had happened."
But Christopherson thinks about it now. After 20 years in the Navy and a career as a Vermillion police officer, Christopherson spends a lot of his time sharing the Pearl Harbor story. He speaks to students and radio audiences. He's been interviewed by numerous newspapers, maintains an active role in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and has appeared on two South Dakota Public Television programs, including the highly acclaimed Pearl Harbor Survivors: South Dakota Stories. In February, he and his wife Bea will travel to Hawaii to revisit Pearl Harbor.
The couple lived there for two years during the Korean War and their subsequent visits were made before the Pearl Harbor Memorial was built. They will be able to see it this time.
"I know this is something Darrel wants to do before something happens to either one of us," Bea said.
And although the memories have become easier over time to share with whomever asks to hear Christopherson talk about Pearl Harbor, he knows the upcoming trip to Hawaii will be an emotional one. But, he says, "It's time."