DECEMBER 7, 1941|44

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 7, 2008

minutes. 2,400 bodies. Giles Bacon won’t ever forget Pearl Harbor

“Remember Pearl Harbor” is more than just a patriotic slogan for Giles Bacon. It’s a reminder of the most dramatic moment in his life, indelibly etched in his memory, for he was there when the U.S. Naval base in Hawaii was attacked 67 years ago today.

Bacon, who now lives in Vicksburg, was a 21-year-old Marine serving as a military policeman. The Sunday morning attack had a sobering effect — literally — for the veteran, now 88, said he was suffering “one hell of a hangover” when the bombs began to fall. It didn’t take him long to get over the results of his Saturday night partying.

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He was stationed on Ford Island, a land mass in the center of Pearl Harbor. On the morning of the attack, he was still in bed, but when he heard the bombs exploding and looked out his window, he saw a plane headed directly toward him, strafing planes that were lined up, and bullets bouncing off the concrete walls of the building. When the plane made a turn, he saw the insignia on the side — the Rising Sun, the symbol of the Japanese empire.

Bacon quickly dressed, got out of there and headed to the other side of the island, an area so small that he said he could ride a bicycle around it in about 25 minutes. When he got to Battleship Row, what he saw was beyond belief: “Ships were on fire and sinking, and planes were coming from all angles. They cut loose over 200 planes at us.”

The attack lasted only 44 minutes, but the destruction was massive: the battleship Arizona was lost, and four other battleships, three destroyers and several others were greatly damaged. Three other battleships, three cruisers, one seaplane tender, one repair vessel and one dry dock were hit, but ultimately repaired. The Navy lost 80 planes and the Army 97. Only two Marine planes were able to take to the air and respond to the attack.

It might have been worse: a change of plans was the only reason aircraft carriers and another battleship were not at Ford Island.

When the Arizona was hit, Bacon was only a few hundred feet away, and the concussion blew him into a palm tree.

“I could hear the guys hollering,” he said and, wading out into water waist high, he held out a palm limb to grasping hands, trying to save whomever he could. Some made it, some didn’t. Soon the oil from the ships floated to the surface, and it was like a lake of fire.

Speaking of the scene, he said, “They never had a chance, but they did their jobs. They were there for one reason — to protect this country.”

The time was pure chaos. The only men in uniform were the Marines, for the others had lost everything and were running around in their skivvies. The Marines, as MPs, were also the only ones with ammunition. There were 37,000 men at Pearl Harbor, Bacon said, and there was no water, no electricity, no sleeping quarters, no way to prepare meals, yet the men quickly mobilized.

It was a strange sight — the beauty of a Sunday morning in the virtual Hawaiian paradise, yet there was death and destruction everywhere. There was the task of caring for the wounded and burying the dead. For days, the tide washed body parts onto the beaches.

With such a crippling blow, the United States was not able to prevent the fall of the Philippines and most of the South Pacific to the Japanese.

Bacon was at Pearl Harbor until December 1943 when he came back to the mainland to help make up the 5th Marine Division that was sent to Okinawa. He was also in a commando outfit that went to Macon Island before invasion of Guadalcanal. There was a Japanese radio station on the island, and the mission was to destroy it. Bacon was one of 120 men on two submarines given the assignment. For more than 20 days, they never saw daylight, surfacing only at night. It took three hours to accomplish their mission, and not a man was lost. Then it was back to Honolulu.

“You talk about a stinking bunch of guys,” he said. “Twenty-something days without a bath. When we landed, there was a mad dash for the showers. It took more than Chanel No. 5.”

Bacon grew up in Iowa, a farm boy near Des Moines, and joined the Marines in 1939. He was stationed in California and China before being sent to Pearl Harbor. Today, there’s a monument in front of the state capital in Iowa saluting the men who were at Pearl Harbor. Bacon is president of the survivors and was instrumental in having the monument erected — and without government expense.

He’s credited with nine years of service in the Marines and has a number of medals, but said, “I was a hell-raiser, but you know what? I got a good conduct medal.”

He sustained two wounds in service — one at Pearl Harbor, another at Guadalcanal. After all the years, he said, some things, such as Guadalcanal, are still too painful to talk about.

Bacon stressed that he has no hard feelings against the Japanese people — it was their war lords who were to blame.

But that Sunday morning — Dec. 7, 1941 — is something he will never forget.

“Forty-four minutes — 2,400 bodies,” he said. “We left a lot of buddies over there.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.