Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
HONOLULU — Clarence Pfundheller was standing in front of his locker on the USS Maryland when a fellow sailor told him they were being bombed by Japanese planes.
"We never did call him a liar but he could stretch the truth pretty good," Pfundheller said. "But once you seen him, you knew he wasn't lying."
The 21-year-old Iowa native ran up to the deck that Sunday morning to man a five-inch anti-aircraft gun. Seventy years later, he remembers struggling to shoot low-flying Japanese planes as smoke from burning oil billowed through the air.
"This was the worst thing about it — yeah, your eyes — it bothered you. It bothered your throat too, because there was so much of that black smoke rolling around that a lot of times you could hardly see," he said.
Now 91, Pfundheller will be returning to Pearl Harbor on Wednesday for the 70th anniversary ceremony honoring those lost in the Dec. 7, 1941 attack that brought the United States into World War II.
Accompanying him will be fellow survivors, other World War II veterans, and a handful of college students eager to hear their stories. The student and veteran group will be among 3,000 people attending a ceremony the Navy and the National Park Service hoist jointly each year at a site overlooking where the USS Arizona sank in the attack.
The College of the Ozarks program aims to preserve the stories of veterans — something that's becoming increasingly urgent for Pearl Harbor survivors as the youngest are in their late 80s.
Pfundheller said he enlisted in the Navy in 1939 because he kept hearing there was going to be a war and he wanted to know what to do when the fighting started. By the time Japanese fighter planes and torpedo bombers invaded the skies above Hawaii, he was well-trained.
Even so, the scene was utterly chaotic.
Commanders hadn't expected Japan to strike from the air, so Pfundheller's anti-aircraft ammunition was locked away in a gun locker. Then, when he gained access to the 3-foot-long, 75-pound shells, Pfundheller said the Japanese planes were flying too close for him to take aim.
"You could see them pumping their fists and laughing at you," he said.
The Maryland's crew scrambled to prevent their battleship from going down with the USS Oklahoma, which rolled over after being hit by multiple torpedoes.
"We had to cut her lines tied up to us because it was pulling us away," he said.
Altogether, 2,390 Americans lost their lives in the attack. Twelve ships sank or were beached, and nine were damaged. The U.S. lost 164 aircraft. On the Japanese side, 64 people died, five ships sank, and 29 planes were destroyed.
After the war, Pfundfeller returned to Iowa where he worked as a district feed salesman and became an elementary school custodian. He now lives in Greenfield just 12 miles from Bridgewater, the town where he was raised.
Many veterans didn't talk much about their experiences after World War II, and Pfundheller's own children didn't hear what he went through until he began sharing his stories at schools and libraries.
"People in the Midwest where I lived — why, you just went back, got your job and went to work and nobody asked anything," he said.
Today, efforts are under way to make sure stories like his are handed down to younger generations.
Pfundheller and four other World War II veterans are traveling to Hawaii with 10 students from the College of the Ozarks, a Christian school in Branson, Mo. After Hawaii, the group will travel to Japan to visit Okinawa, where the U.S. and Japan fought a brutal battle in the last few months of the war, and Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb.
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