It was a Sunday morning in Hawaii and Werner Klemm had big plans.
An 18-year-old from New Jersey, he was going to meet up with a friend on the battleship USS California, which had just pulled into Pearl Harbor. The two were going to head over to the Pali trail on the island of Oahu.
The morning colors had just been presented and Klemm, who joined the Navy to find a job, was standing on the deck of his ship — the USS Dobbin, a destroyer tender anchored a couple of hundred yards from some of the fleet’s biggest battleships.
“I was getting ready to go to shore,” says Klemm, now 90 and living in Port Richey. “At five minutes to eight, I saw these airplanes coming down, fluttering like cards. I didn’t think anything of it.”
The Army Air Corps had mock air raids a couple of times a week. And after a month of rising security concerns over a possible Japanese attack, precautions were relaxed Dec. 1 as the sprawling Hawaiian base was placed on more of a holiday status.
Even seeing an explosion from the North Island didn’t alarm Klemm.
“Gee, that seems pretty realistic today,” Klemm recalls thinking as he thought of joining his friend to see the fierce wind blow the water back up the Pali falls.
A few seconds later, Klemm realized Dec. 7, 1941, would be no ordinary Sunday morning.
“An airplane came right over our ship. It pulled up from bombing the island and had two big red circles on the wings. At that point I knew.”
The ship’s alarm system sounded the general quarters alert. Unlike in the Hollywood versions, there was no confusion about what to do.
“The movies show you all kinds of camera jumps all over. All kinds of confusion. There wasn’t after the first minute. You knew what to do. We were a well-trained military force.”
Klemm’s job was to grab ammunition for the anti-aircraft guns.
“While rushing to my station, stuff started blowing up all over. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a plane coming right down at us.”
The plane was so close Klemm could see the pilot.
“There was this Japanese with his head over the side, looking at me.”
Klemm saw two bombs drop.
“I dropped the ammunition on the deck, put my hands on the deck and kind of prayed a little. The bomb on my side dropped in the water. All I did was get soaked and splashed.”
But the bomb heading for the other side of the ship blew up before it hit the water.
“It took out our gun crew. It killed my best friend. His name was Roy A. Gross. He was from Oak Park, Illinois. He was a boilermaker striker like I was.”
Three others on the Dobbin were killed by that bomb. By the end of the day, more than 2,300 other Americans died, as well.
After the first wave of Japanese planes passed Pearl Harbor, Klemm got to see first-hand the level of destruction.
Another man on the ship asked him for help on a 36-foot whale boat to rescue survivors from the battleships sunk nearby.
“We started pulling men out of the water from the USS Arizona, the USS West Virginia and the USS Oklahoma. They were all sitting on the bottom. We watched the Oklahoma turn over. It was about half way over by time the Arizona got hit and blew up.”
The water was on fire.
“There was a lot of oil in it. We picked up survivors and whoever was floating in there. We did not know if they were hurt or dead, Everything covered with a layer of oil, some of it was on fire.”
Bringing men on board the whale boat was a challenge.
“Everything was slippery. Some were so badly burnt, their skin came right off their arm. Some would holler, some would not holler.”
After the skies cleared, Klemm and the other man grabbed hoses, gas bottles and torches, and motored over to the Arizona. Rescuers could hear banging from survivors in the capsized ship, now a memorial to the dead.
“People over there were trying to cut through the bottom. They heard banging there and, every once in a while, you would see someone pop out of the water.”
Klemm doesn’t recall the full name of the other man on the whale boat.
“His last name was Grant. I don’t know his first name. He was a motor mechanic from Missouri. That’s all I know.”
Klemm stayed in the Navy until October 1945, serving all over the Pacific.
After the war, he bounced around from one dying industry to another, became a widower three times, and, in between all that, moved to Florida, where, among other things, he became known as the pie maker for Marine Corps League Detachment 567, a veterans group in New Port Richey.
This year, like he has for the past several, Klemm will join a few other Pearl Harbor survivors on the 72nd anniversary of the attack at a memorial at the Zephyrhills Museum of Military History, 39444 South Ave, starting at 10 a.m.
“They have a table for the survivors set up there. We answer questions from people coming in. They take pictures. We autograph whatever they want autographed.”
It’s “a lot of work. Last year, they were waiting up to an hour for us to show up.”
But Klemm doesn’t mind. He knows that it won’t be long before no one will be around to talk about the date which lives on in infamy.
“These people are dropping by the wayside,” says Klemm. “I am always going to these honor guards and wakes.”
Klemm and other survivors will be honored 10 a.m. Saturday at the Zephryhills Museum of Military History; 11 a.m. Saturday at the Pearl Harbor memorial at Veterans Memorial Park and Museum, 3602 U.S. 301, Tampa; and 11 a.m. Sunday at the Marine Corps League Detachment 567 headquarters, 7241 Baillie Drive, New Port Richey.