Last Friday was an interesting day.
The day began with a minor medical scare. Then I got whacked in the back of the head with a toy football. Later on I got to play with a new Blue Heeler puppy.
I also met John Wallace.
The name Wallace may conjure up the image of a heroic, sword-wielding Scotsman in a ragged tartan. But this Wallace, Scottish as he is, seems more like a patient, wizened Shaolin master with surprisingly sharp comedic timing.
Just before we were introduced, I saw him open the door for his niece to allow her to enter the building first. I asked him if he had any single brothers.
Early last century, Wallace’s forebears left Scotland for Australia. The Wallace family grew rapidly in its new home, and some of the Wallaces decided to sail to California to find work. En route, their ship stopped in Hawaii to refuel, and the captain allowed the passengers to go ashore for an hour.
Wallace’s father and uncle strolled into downtown Honolulu, where their attention immediately focused on several “help wanted” signs. They returned to the ship, retrieved their bags, and informed the crew that they would not be continuing on to the U.S. They were staying in Hawaii.
His father married a native Hawaiian who had danced before the king as a young girl. Soon they had a family, and not long after World War I ended, their son John was born. With cappuccino skin and introspective, brown-flecked green eyes, he was raised in a bilingual, bicultural home.
In August of 1941, Honolulu native John Wallace had just turned 20 and taken a job at the naval shipyard. He became an apprentice—in his words a “helper”—at the foundry, a civilian employee of the federal government. Four years of that work would earn him a full-fledged welding position.
At first he and his coworkers only worked five days a week. Five days became six days. By the first week of November, the newbies were working seven days a week. Not only did they work a lot, but they were becoming viciously efficient in their duties. Jobs that used to take two weeks to complete were now finished much faster.
Wallace knew that something was up, and thought that the Navy must have a serious desire to modernize and strengthen their fleet.
On December 7th, 1941, Wallace and two coworkers were unloading coke and heaving it onto the flatcar that was pushed into the foundry. He worked at Shop 26 near the drydocks, which looked directly at Ford Island to the north. The men had started work early that Sunday morning to ensure that everything was ready to go for the first shift on Monday.
In the waterway between the Navy yard and the island, nine behemoth vessels were moored in formation, the tropical water serenely pooled around their grey bulks. Many of the sailors had been in town the night before, so while some were on board, others were still on land.
Something to the northeast caught Wallace’s eye. He saw three planes, wings laced with the familiar orange hue used to locate downed aircraft in the water. “Is the Navy practicing?” he thought. Uneasy, he told his boss Charlie about the planes.
“What bar were you in last night, Wallace?!” his boss thundered. “Get back to work!”
Believing that young John Wallace had been drinking and was still drunk, Charlie wasn’t buying it. Wallace tried to assure his boss that he was not hallucinating and that they were in danger, but gruff old Charlie wouldn’t let them leave.
Two other apprentices saw the planes too.
Then they saw the bombs fall.
The planes pulled up, and like rays of a solar eclipse stabbing clear to the backs of their heads, the men of Shop 26 recognized the blood red “meatballs” on their wings– they were Japanese planes.
The hangars on the west end of Ford Island exploded. That was the first place Wallace saw the bombs hit.
Instinctively, he ducked under a railcar, but noticed a formation of five planes coming in from another direction. But they were followed by more, who were soon joined by another group. He counted: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25…
Soon there were so many squadrons coming in from so many different directions that he stopped counting.
The torpedo planes and dive bombers came first, followed by the high level bombers. As the civilians evacuated the shops, apocalyptic blasts were knocking years of grimy soot off of the rafters. The dust poured down over their work area like a gothic snowstorm as their world lit up with chaos in every direction.
Sailors started streaming from the hatches of the ships and submarines in front of the shop. Some had been roused from slumber, and few had any idea what was going on. Wallace and his men filled them in as the sky screamed, the earth rocked, and the water churned. He said it was fortunate that his particular building was open at both ends, because the colossal shock waves from the bombs blew straight threw it.
The Japanese had come looking for the Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers, but the carriers had already offloaded their damaged planes and left. In their absence this unrelenting undeclared enemy rained down fire and brimstone on Battleship Row, the hangars, and just about everything else.
Drydock Number One was right in front of Wallace’s shop, and the ships and sub parked there were being pummeled. Their gigantic steel structures arced and twisted like mangled waterfowl in the mouth of a savage predator.
At some point, unarmed and out in the open, Wallace thought, “I’ve got to get outta here.” His thoughts turned to one outcome he might be able to control, the fate of the new car he was still making payments on.
Wallace ran for the parking lot, revved up his car, and drove toward the gate. A large Marine stopped him, growling at him to turn around because no one was allowed to leave.
Realizing the growing need for manpower, and knowing it was the right thing to do, Wallace abandoned his ride.
Something deep within Wallace and the other men stirred. As they were enveloped by an acrid, choking hell, they jumped into the fray to save lives. The distinction between civilian and uniformed melted amidst the billowing black smoke and blasts that wracked terra firma.
Wallace and his coworkers helped everyone. Sailors needed to be helped out of their vessels and many people were wounded and shell-shocked. Some needed serious medical help; others just needed a drink of water.
In the middle of it all, Wallace and others screamed, “lead! lead!” at the gunners who were fighting back, because they weren’t normally gunners. They were swabbies and cooks and bakers, and other astoundingly brave men who leapt into the roles normally filled by the gunner’s mates who’d gone ashore Saturday night. They were not trained to shoot ahead of the enemy aircraft to ensure hits because that wasn’t their job.
From the beginning of the attack Wallace was aware of what was happening to Battleship Row and Ford Island. He also knew that Hickham Field, to the southeast of him, was being destroyed. He remembers what happened to most of the ships, and even though the civilians had boats to traverse the bay to get to them, they couldn’t go out in that storm.
The Oklahoma was on fire, blew up, and sank. The Nevada cast off anchor and was moving west while firing at the Japanese aircraft when it was torpedoed. He thought it sank, but it was actually beached around the point from him to keep it from blocking the mouth of the harbor. He also didn’t know that there were Japanese submarines unleashing torpedoes below the surface.
To Wallace it was clear that the Arizona suffered the worst damage, and the California and West Virginia were both hit. He believes the Tennessee got away, and that the Vestal suffered major damage but didn’t sink. The Shaw, which was in the floating drydock not far from his position, was badly hit. So were the destroyers Downes and Cassin, which were on fire directly in front of him.
The bombing continued for nearly two hours. Wallace had a front row seat to the entire horror. Two waves of various Japanese planes had mercilessly ravaged the harbor and surrounding areas. As the bombing wound down the rescue efforts ramped up; hundreds of men were trapped in capsized ships out in the bay.
Wallace’s welder coworkers were among those put to work to release those men from their upside down prisons. But they couldn’t use their torches because everything was bathed in fuel and the ships still had fuel in them. Instead, they had to employ pneumatic tools to knock holes in the mighty hulls.
Wallace remembers the chippers and caulkers going out to the Oklahoma, whose sailors crawled out through the near-empty fuel tanks of the double-bottomed vessel. Everyone did everything they could, as fast as they could, and as safely as they could, to help each other.
Then the salvage work began. Welders were used to repair what could be repaired. At least one of the sunken vessels was raised, and many of the ships were sent to the San Francisco shipyard for further repairs. The Downes and Cassin, sitting ducks in the drydock closest to his building, had been damaged beyond repair, and were sunk at sea.
But Wallace and his coworkers were completely serious about honoring their shipyard’s motto as they repaired the damage from the attack: We Keep Our Ships Fit to Fight. So serious, in fact, that John Wallace continued to work at the Pearl Harbor shipyard for the next 39 years.
In nearly four decades of maintaining the U.S. Navy’s fleet at Pearl Harbor, Wallace never took a sick day. By the time he retired, he had enough leave to stay home for an entire year and still get paid. He loved his work and his work loved him. His craft, after all, had been forged in the fires of an apocalyptic ambush, making his work ethic as hard as the steel he doctored ships with.
Even in his fifties, not only would Wallace work all night to keep our nation’s ships in top shape, but some mornings he would pick up his brother’s children and take them to the beach. He was a devoted uncle, willingly offering child care on no sleep, and also took care of his mother for years. He did not marry until he was 63 and dearly loves his two daughters.
Now entering his ninth decade of life, Wallace divides his time between Hawaii and California so that he can see his family. Although he enjoys telling the story about how his boss thought he was hallucinating when the Pearl Harbor attack began, his eyes belie the gravity of what he lived through.
He remembers most names, he recalls the faces. He can still see the columns of smoke and hear the ships’ magazines rupturing.
I asked Wallace if he’d ever been recognized for his heroic actions on that paradise-became-purgatory Sunday morning nearly 70 years ago. The answer was no. He has never received any awards or gotten individual recognition. He made it clear that’s just not his style.
Looking straight in front of him as if he was once again standing outside Shop 26 late in 1941, the ballpoint pen he used to gesture at a map still clutched in his hand, Wallace said softly, “everyone saved lives.”
The heights by great men reached & kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
For more photos that show what Wallace saw, and information on Pearl Harbor, please see:
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