Gerard Barbosa, a 17-year-old gunner’s mate from Brooklyn, had just finished breakfast aboard the Navy cruiser USS Raleigh docked at the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii when a torpedo rocked the hull with such power that “It felt like the ship lifted out of the water.”
Ordered to hurry to his anti-aircraft gun, Barbosa came onto the deck to find the ship was being attacked by Japanese warplanes that filled the sky.
“Bullets were bouncing all around us and hitting the bulkhead as we ran,” said Barbosa, 93, of East Meadow. “I don’t know how I didn’t get hit. Someone must have been watching over us.
“My loader said ‘Ain’t you scared?’ ” Barbosa recalled. “I said ‘Damned right I’m scared.’ I was shaking. I told him, make sure I have enough ammunition.”
Barbosa, the son of a father from Cuba and mother from Spain, is among the last known living area residents to have survived the attack at Pearl Harbor — an attack that indelibly marked his life and plunged America into World War II. Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of the attack, with fewer and fewer living eyewitnesses to tell their remarkable stories.
“I still remember it; you don’t forget that stuff,” said Barbosa, who worked for Republic and Grumman as an aircraft electrician after the war and retired from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Coney Island yard in 1990. “It never leaves you.”
Barbosa saw history made again in June 1944: After Pearl Harbor, he was transferred to Europe, where he was a landing craft crew member during the D-Day invasion of France.
The Pearl Harbor attack came without warning even as American and Japanese diplomats were negotiating in Washington to prevent growing tensions between the two countries from spilling over into war.
Japan’s Admiral Chuichi Nagumu, commander of the fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor, described the planned operation 15 days before his planes struck Pearl Harbor, according to U.S. Army historical records.
“The Carrier Striking Task Force will proceed to the Hawaiian Area with utmost secrecy and . . . launch a resolute surprise attack on and deal a fatal blow to the enemy fleet in the Hawaiian Area,” the admiral wrote.
The Japanese strike force consisted of 353 aircraft launched from six aircraft carriers, according to the U.S. Navy’s History and Heritage Command. The attacking aircraft — 40 torpedo planes, 103 bombers, 131 dive-bombers, and 79 fighters — swooped so close he could see the faces of some of the pilots, Barbosa recalled.
In all, he and his fellow crew members fired a total of 13,526 rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition that morning, the Raleigh’s commanding officer, Capt. R.B. Simons, wrote in a report six days later.
“The guns were magnificently handled; all hands from chief petty officers to mess boys volunteering to fill out the regular gun crews and keep ammunition supplied,” Simons wrote. “. . . the gun crews on the top side kept up a heavy and accurate fire. Five bombing planes, which this ship had under fire and on which hits were observed, were seen to crash close aboard, either in flames or in fragments.”
Japan’s attack was devastatingly effective. In less than two hours of nightmarish chaos, 21 ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were sunk or damaged, most of them while still at their moorings. The attack claimed the lives of 2,403 Americans, including 68 civilians.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war after the attack in his famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech to Congress. The declaration abruptly ended what had been a mostly isolationist American foreign policy. Germany declared war on America shortly after the attack.
The United States was anything but a superpower before the attack. The U.S. military numbered fewer than 200,000 personnel in 1939 — a military that at 19th in the world was smaller than Portugal’s. Today, the U.S. military numbers about 2.7 million active and reserve members.
“What people don’t understand is at the time, the American public did not want to get into the war,” said Keith Huxen, senior director of research and history at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. “You had organizations like the America First Committee and other isolationist groups that said we shouldn’t get involved at all. Pearl Harbor changed all that.”
Pearl Harbor energized the United States to divert much of the capacity of its shipyards and manufacturing plants to repair damaged ships and planes, and to build new ones.
“It was what Admiral Yamamoto feared,” said Robert J. Cressman, of the Naval History and Heritage Command, referring to the commander of Japan’s navy. “That the capacity of the United States to make good the damage was something that the Japanese simply didn’t have.”
Pearl Harbor also helped to unite America around a singular task — to defend itself against a common enemy.
“I don’t consider myself a hero,” said Barbosa, who recalls having breakfast with “an Italian guy from Chicago” moments before he rushed to his anti-aircraft gun. “I just was doing a job, protecting my buddies and protecting my country.”