Pearl Harbor survivor piloted small boat through carnage
Raised as a Wyoming farm boy, he had enlisted in the Navy.
"I knew a little something about engines from the tractors on the farm. I was assigned to be an engineer on a motor launch," the Arlington man said Tuesday.
On the bright Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941, most men on his ship, the USS Curtis, were on a holiday schedule, getting a late start.
Dickson, who had arrived at Pearl Harbor on Nov. 26, was on duty that Sunday. He had ferried some officers to shore on the smaller boat. The Curtis, a seaplane tender, was tied up across a channel from Pearl Harbor's Ford Island, moorage for the USS Arizona and other vessels on Battleship Row.
The 19-year-old sailor was about to have breakfast aboard the Curtis. "I'd just gone to the galley to get a big plate of bacon and eggs," said Dickson, now 91.
In the quiet of his Arlington home, Dickson recalled chilling details of the Japanese attack -- 71 years ago today. The air raid killed more than 2,300 Americans, wrecked the Navy's battleship force, and catapulted the United States into World War II.
Loud explosions interrupted Dickson's breakfast. "Guys were looking out the portholes and shouting," he said. "We saw the Japanese planes so low and close I could actually see the pilots."
Those planes, he said, were headed to bomb a nearby airfield and hangars.
An alarm sounded, sending men to battle stations. At first, Dickson stayed aboard the Curtis in a midship repair area, wearing headphones for communications. Lights suddenly went out and his area filled with smoke. Boat crews were ordered to the small launches, to be ready to pick up survivors. The 24-foot open boats normally carried a crew of four.
"My boat was last to leave, and I didn't have a crew. I remember an officer on deck yelled at me, 'Get that boat away,'" Dickson recalled.
Afraid and alone, he thought he could cross the bay in front of two destroyers heading out of the channel. In a hail of bombs, shrapnel and machine gun fire targeting the destroyers, he turned to avoid hitting one of them. "I was directly between them when Japanese planes made a run at them," Dickson wrote in a journal of his Pearl Harbor memories.
He recalls ducking into his boat's bow, covering himself with life jackets, and hearing bullets slap the water. Wet, scared and seeing his boat riddled with holes, he made it across the bay.
By then, the USS Utah had been torpedoed. Before the attack, the Utah's deck had been covered with timbers to protect it from practice bombs. As the Utah rolled, Dickson saw men clinging to the timbers. He was able to pick up one man clinging to a timber in the water, "almost frozen in shock."
They made it to a beach, and took refuge in a small concrete structure. The raid wasn't over, but during a lull they went out to see the nightmarish scene.
"You can't imagine the noise, and the smoke where the battleships were," he said, describing fires and explosions as planes dropped their loads.
"We saw the Curtis get hit," Dickson said. His ship was damaged when a Japanese plane with one wing shot off crashed into it, igniting a fire, and a bomb exploded on the hangar deck. About 20 Curtis crewmen died in the attacks, but the ship was repaired to serve throughout the war.
Dickson is haunted by what he saw after the attack.
"We had to pick up bodies and body parts. On my own ship, two of my friends died. We had to come back and scrub human tissue from the bulkheads," Dickson said. Body parts were piled at a landing dock next to the naval hospital.
"That was the worst part. Nothing compared with the aftermath," Dickson said.
He sat in his living room Tuesday, where family pictures tell a different story. Dickson married his high school sweetheart, Elna, who was also in the military during the war. "We were engaged seven years," he said.
A father of six and grandfather of 26, he lost both Elna and his second wife, Marie, to cancer. He and his current wife, Mary Alice, have been married 18 years.
Dickson spent the entire war in the South Pacific. After leaving the Navy, he briefly attended the University of Wyoming, but moved to Washington where he had a long career as a contractor. He built roads, many for the U.S. Forest Service and the state.
He has talked about Pearl Harbor at schools, knowing he is among a dwindling number of survivors who remember.
"As far as being a hero, I don't think I was much of a hero -- more a scared kid from the farm," Dickson said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pearl Harbor Day events
Here are events that are occurring around Snohomish and Island counties to remember the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
• More than 2,400 Americans were killed in the surprise Japanese attack, which drew the U.S. into World War II.
• A remembrance is planned at 11 a.m. today at the Eternal Flame at the Snohomish County campus, 3000 Rockefeller, Ave., Everett. Lt. Jeffrey W. Benson, Everett Naval Station chaplain, is scheduled to give a prayer and the Everett High School Navy ROTC will present the colors. A wreath will be placed in remembrance of the attack.
• A special event to honor veterans and remember Pearl Harbor Day will be from 1 to 4 p.m. today at Pioneer Hall, 20722 67th Ave. NE in Arlington. The Stilly Valley Pioneer Association museum's military section will be open for viewing. Call 360-435-7289.
• NAS Whidbey Island will join Electronic Attack Squadron 129 and the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, North Cascades Chapter 5, to honor those killed in the attack.
• The public is invited to attend the ceremony that begins at 10 a.m. today at the Crescent Harbor Marina on the Seaplane Base, with a reception immediately following at the PBY Museum at the top of the hill. Among the speakers will be members from the survivors association.
• In remembrance of the more than 2,400 Navy, Marine Corps, Army and civilian men and women who died 71 years ago, survivors will place a wreath in the waters of Crescent Harbor.
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