“At 17, he had seen images that haunted his dreams for the rest of his life.” – Steven Sanders, on his father’s Pearl Harbor experience
TEMPE, Ariz. — Steven Sanders’ reflections of what happened on Dec. 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor are more subjective than what most Americans experience.
Sanders, a Test Technician at the U-Haul Tech Center in his hometown of Tempe for the last eight years, draws on the firsthand accounts of his late father when it comes to that silence-shattering Sunday morning 75 years ago.
Virgil “Sandy” Sanders was in the heart of the horrifying action. He was aboard the USS Ogala, a minelayer ship tied up across from battleship row that capsized amid the flurry of exploding Japanese torpedoes.
Sandy shared tales of the “date that will live in infamy” and his other World War II assignments with his son in years to follow. It wasn’t the easiest of relationships. Sandy, who died in 1996 at age 73, suffered from Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder. His vivid accounts of the war surfaced after he’d been drinking.
“The (Pearl Harbor anniversary) makes me think about him, but it also increases my respect for what he was going through,” said Sanders, a U.S. Army veteran who served from 1986-93. “He would talk about what was going down on the bridges of the ships … he was 17 when he was doing this. It’s amazing, the stories he told. I didn’t read much into it at the time. But now to hear others talk about it – I’ve met a lot of people whose fathers have gone through (PTSD).
“There was so much workmanship and pride in what we were doing then. It was a worldwide pride. We were helping everybody. You don’t see that now. They were a different breed. They went out and did what had to be done. And whatever happened, they took it in stride and kept going. They had to accomplish it or we wouldn’t be here today. They stepped up. The ‘Greatest Generation’ title … they earned that.”
U-Haul Takes Stock in Pearl Harbor 75th Commemoration
U-Haul is honoring and remembering our WWII heroes as the Presenting Veterans Sponsor at the “For Love of Country – Pass It On” Opening Gala at the Pacific Aviation Museum for the 75th Commemoration of the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
Edward J. “Joe” Shoen, Chairman and CEO of AMERCO, parent company of U-Haul, will be in attendance the Opening Gala and other commemoration events with his family.
Sanders, who in his spare time serves as an assistant JV football coach at Tempe’s McClintock High, is husband to Sheila and father to three boys: Cheyn (15), Mathias (14) and Kavin (10). His father-in-law, retired U-Haul Team Member Bill Smith, ran what was formerly the Tempe remote distribution center and is now a U-Box container warehouse.
Several U-Haul Team Members have family ties to Pearl Harbor. Sanders was generous enough to share the following narrative of his father and Sandy’s life-altering experience 75 years ago.
All of my family has had generations serve the military. My father was in WWII, my grandfathers were in WWI, my uncle was in Vietnam, and I served in Desert Storm. I presently have paperwork to be certified as a Son of the Revolution. Both sides of my family served in the Green Mountain Boys in Vermont.
My father joined the Navy when he was 16½ years old. He grew up in Oklahoma at the end of the Great Depression, in the Dust Bowl. His football coach for his high school was a major in the Army National Guard and got kids in there to make extra money while working on his National Guard artillery battery unit. He knew he needed to take care of his mother and two younger sisters, and with the war going on, he prodded and cajoled his mother until she signed the enlistment papers. He went to boot camp and then to a specialty school to learn how to hard-hat dive.
After completion, his first ship was the USS Ogala, a minelayer ship that took into Pearl Harbor. It was tied up at the Pier 1010 dock across from battleship row. He drew quartermaster duty, which meant he had to raise the Stars and Bars at sunrise. When the first aircraft roared in at sunrise, the deckhands made remarks about how the Army was lost again and couldn’t find their airfield. But all that faded as the first explosions started. Since the U.S. was not at war, the ship’s captain had locked up the ammo supply before he went on leave for the night. So, the crew had to scramble to get off the ship and onto the docks. When asked about Pearl Harbor, all my father would say was it was noisy. He witnessed the destruction of battleship row with the explosion of the USS Arizona. His own ship took two torpedoes at mid-ship, and was moved as to not block another ship, before it sank. After the attack ended, the cleanup started. Since he was the only hard-hat qualified diver in the area, he ended up diving down on several ships to retrieve the manifest and log books – especially from the USS Arizona. He was told not to let any of the dead float off since they were going to keep them all together.
At 17, he had seen images that haunted his dreams for the rest of his life.
After Pearl Harbor, his stories were mainly comprised of his time on the USS Mullany DD-528 destroyer. He served on this ship until the battle of Okinawa. His battle station was on the bridge, manning the wheel. The “Mull” saw action at Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Leyte, Adak, Saipan and Okinawa. At Guadalcanal, he lost schoolmates to a kamikaze that hit the forward gun. They thought the fire from the crash, when the fuel from the Zeke’s wing tanks exploded and poured into the lower levels of the ship, would cause the ammunition stored in the magazine to explode. The “abandon ship” order was given and all crews left and waited to see if it would explode and sink. After the attack ended and the subsequent fire had burned out, the Mull had stayed afloat. So around midnight they went back on board to see if the boiler would light and if the steering still worked. Once they were both found operational, and fearing another kamikaze attack, Capt. Al Momm ordered the skeleton crew to get the ship underway and head back to a friendly harbor. They did that. It took three weeks to make the Mull seaworthy again so they could put to sea and get her back to the dry docks at Pearl Harbor. The Mull was finally back in action by the end of the war. My father served on other ships after that and had many other details like surveying the islands for naval ports.
Somewhere in the Fiji Islands, he was taken into an island in the middle of the night to survey it for a new harbor. The boat that took him into the island was PT 109 skippered by future President John F. Kennedy.
My father didn’t really volunteer for that detail. Sandy and his best friend, Hoose, were goofing off in formation so when the captain asked for volunteers. Everyone stepped back, leaving the two jokesters standing by themselves. The island was held by the Japanese. They were dropped at the island by PT 109 at midnight to survey the island and take soundings from the harbor to determine if a safe harbor could be built. They were picked up before first light and returned back to their ship. The Navy decided, after all reports were in, that an island to the south called Funafuti would be used. Sandy and Hoose were put on detail for three months removing coral from the mouth of the harbor and developing a harbor for the Navy. He said it was the best duty ever. You see, the female to male population of this island was three to one.
There are some horrific stories my father told that I am sure fueled his PTSD, but these are the adventures and the time he regaled the most.
To learn more about U-Haul Company’s role in the 75th Commemoration of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, click here and follow myuhaulstory.com throughout December.
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Featured image: Virgil “Sandy” Sanders (left) and Steven Sanders at the time of their military service. Photos compliments of Steven Sanders.