To be in charge of damage control during the attack on Pearl Harbor would guarantee witnessing the horrifying scene up close. Harry Simoneaux, a damage control officer aboard the destroyer tender USS Whitney (AD-4), was right in the thick of the attack that morning as he and his fellow crewmen were preparing to attend church services on shore. It was just before 0800 and Simoneaux, donning his dress whites for the religious service, was unaware that the plans for his morning were about to take a dramatic turn.
December 7, 1941
“I saw airplanes coming over,” Simoneaux said, recalling the first sign of the attack. “It looked like they were dropping sandbags.” Those sandbags, of course, were bombs and torpedoes. And the planes weren’t American, but rather were fighters and bombers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. As the damage control officer looked on, watching the planes soar overhead, a nearby hangar blew up, forcing him and his fellow churchgoers to hit the deck.
As a damage control officer, Harry Simoneaux had no time to process what was unfolding around him before being ordered to a seemingly impossible task. As bombs fell and the harbor was peppered with machine gun fire, Simoneaux and a small team were to go and try to assist the damaged USS Arizona (BB-39). The battleship was on fire from bomb damage she had already sustained, but the damage control officer saw the devastating final blow just as he was about to board. “I saw a bomb go right into it. It was destroyed. I just looked up at the Lord and said, ‘Please spare me to live so I can go back and kill some Japanese,’” Simoneaux recalled as he spoke about the events of that tragic day.
Harry Simoneaux and the War in the Pacific
Either his prayer was answered or he was just lucky; in any case Simoneaux did live through the attack on Pearl Harbor, but not before the image of torpedoes and bombs dropping from the sky was forever burned into his memory. He went on to fight in the Pacific War, serving aboard the destroyer USS Worden (DD-352).
In early 1943, Harry Simoneaux had another close encounter with death when Worden ran aground on rocks and boulders off Constantine Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, breaking up and sinking. Floating aimlessly in the freezing waters, Simoneaux felt himself slipping as hypothermia started to kick in. “It was so cold. I had made my peace with the Lord and went under,” he remembers of the ordeal. Though he believed himself to have no hope, Simoneaux was saved when a sailor from a rescue vessel noticed his fingers moving and pulled him from the frigid waters.
Harry Simoneaux survived more battles, finally making it to September 2nd, 1945 relatively unharmed, save for damaged hearing. He had the honor of watching the Japanese representative sign the surrender documents aboard USS Missouri (BB-63) in Tokyo Harbor. Simoneaux was awarded three bronze stars and two silver stars for his service during the war.
Harry Simoneaux passed away in 2012, leaving behind harrowing tales of the Pearl Harbor attack and the war that followed.