We couldn't get him to talk much about the war for a long, long time.
To read the first chapter of a book written by the son of a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, please visit: "Cyclone — A Son Remembers His Father: The Biography of Colonel Emmett S. "Cyclone" Davis," By J. Tucker Davis.
HIGHLAND — Emmett "Cyclone" Davis was one of the few American pilots to scramble a plane into the air during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — 70 years ago today.
The P-40 he was flying took friendly fire from a stunned U.S. Navy below, and he was sent, alone, to see if a ground-invasion force was approaching Oahu.
No such force existed, as had been reported, or he would have faced the approaching armada alone.
He flew several additional missions that day, though none are officially recognized because he never took time to do the paperwork.
Cyclone would spend the rest of the war in the Pacific, finally leading a squadron of P-38s on one of the last aerial raids in that theatre of the war. This time it was Americans flying over Japanese soil.
The second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki the day before "Cyclone's Flying Circus" dropped napalm bombs on small-arms factories. "The two big ones got their attention; we brought them to the table," Cyclone said this week from his home in Highland.
Cyclone's first and last air missions are like bookends to the war. This year's Pearl Harbor Day observance is a big deal not only because it marks yet another decade since that infamous day, but because of the likelihood that survivors like Cyclone will be gone by the time the next decade after the attack is commemorated.
"There aren't many of us around anymore," Cyclone said, his wife, Marjorie, at his side. Cyclone turns 93 five days after National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
Pearl Harbor Day in Utah
There are probably between 10 and 15 Pearl Harbor survivors in Utah. The Pearl Harbor Association listed 20 as of the beginning of 2011, but some on that list are known to have died as many as six years ago. Only four members of the group still participate in regular get-togethers, and some, like Cyclone, never joined the association to be counted on that list, so there is no exact count.
Even as their numbers are dwindling fast, organizations like the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs are still looking for, and finding, Pearl Harbor vets they didn't know about.
"There are others we've heard about, and we're still trying to find them," said Cathy Kitterman, president of the Utah chapter of The Sons and Daughters of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Her father, Pearl Harbor vet Carter Tomlinson, asked her years ago if she'd be interested in participating in the group. "I said, 'I would love to.'" She continues to work with the Pearl Harbor vets even though her father died in 1996.
An 11:30 a.m. Pearl Harbor Day ceremony in the rotunda of the Utah state Capitol will honor the four association survivors who still get together: Max Burggraaf, who was an electricians mate aboard the USS Nevada; Marion Kesler, a mess cook aboard the USS Hulbert; Kenneth Potts, a coxswain aboard the USS Arizona; and Ernal Underwood, a petty officer aboard the USS Helena.
An Honors to the Nation Cannon Salute by the 1st Battalion of the Utah National Guard's 145th Artillery is set to take place at 11:48 a.m., which corresponds with the 7:48 a.m. beginning of the Japanese air attack, Hawaii time, on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Organizers want the timing of that salute to be exact.
Important to remember
Some Pearl Harbor survivors, like a broader population of military veterans, still have a hard time talking about what they saw and experienced during the war. Even though hardly anyone knew Davis' first name is Emmett, "Cyclone" was a nickname, not a segue to a war story.
"We couldn't get him to talk much about the war for a long, long time," said Cyclone's son, J. Tucker Davis, who is now writing a biography about his dad. "Then we started breaking him in and got him talking about it."
Today, Cyclone can keep an interested audience on the edge of their chairs as he goes minute-by-minute through the events of Dec. 7, 1941. One keen memory is being strafed, repeatedly, by Japanese dive bombers and he made his way around Wheeler Field, moving airplanes away from fires and getting a P-40 ready for flight.
"A Japanese dive bomber came over. I don't know if they strafed us or not, he might have. He couldn't have been more than 50 feet above me," Cyclone remembers. As the plane flew past and began to pull up, it was close enough Cyclone remembers the grin on the gunner's face.
The gunner wasn't shooting — perhaps because he was out of ammunition — but the grin conveyed a powerful message. "They knew they had succeeded," Cyclone said. "The memories of it — you can't change those."
One thing Cyclone's wife and children learned is that the battle may end, but the fight never leaves the warrior. "To this day, if he's asleep and I wake him up, he comes up almost ready to fight," said his youngest daughter, Kim Davis Richards. "In the early days Mom would have to poke him with a broomstick" so she wasn't too close to him when she woke him up."
Kitterman and members of the Davis family agree their parents were part of what journalist Tom Brokaw dubbed "The Greatest Generation."
"We have a 'me' oriented generation right now, and we can get anything we want at the click of a button, and we don't have to sacrifice and we are very self-oriented," Richards said. "They had to work hard for everything — their very lives."
Cyclone said that the men around him were adaptable, able to figure things out. They succeeded against a regimented opponent because they could drop back and punt when they needed to. Even the nickname "Cyclone" came from a unique dog-fighting maneuver Davis came up with that wasn't in the training manuals.
"I learned a lot from them; they learned a lot from me," Cyclone said of the other pilots he worked with, and then commanded. "I had a code with my unit: Don't lie, don't steal, don't cheat. That's what I told my men."
Cyclone's oldest daughter, Pamela Davis Mull, said the strong character of that generation also played out on the home front by women who "filled the jobs that were left by the men. I hope, should the occasion ever arise, that we and our children could rise to that level."
9/11: The next surprise attack
Dust was still settling around the collapsed World Trade Center towers when the comparisons between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Pearl Harbor attack began.
"They were very similar," Cyclone said. "We were attacked without rhyme or reason. We weren't at war on either one. It was just very destructive," he said. "(The Japanese) did what they planned to, and they did it well, the same way with that 9/11 attack."
With the similarities in mind, Cyclone suggests it's important for the nation's leaders to remember that troops on the ground are only ready to fight if their orders incorporate an alert. "Preparedness, in the military, comes down from the top," he said.
Cyclone and Marjorie were at their son's house at the time of the 9/11 attacks. "I thought immediately of my dad in Pearl Harbor," Tucker Davis remembers of that day. "It was the utter surprise of the attack and the utter evilness of the attack."
Americans watching the 9/11 attacks were seeing in real time what Americans of an earlier time would experience as news bulletins about the Pearl Harbor attacks made their way to the mainland. Just as Pearl Harbor galvanized a nation that hadn't wanted to go to war before the attacks, Mull sees a parallel between that support and present-day galvanizing effects 9/11 had on a nation that has since engaged in two battle theatres, Iraq and Afghanistan, with an all-volunteer military.
"There are always going to be threats out there in the world. It is important the United States maintain a certain level of preservation," Mull said.
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The number of Pearl Harbor survivors is dwindling to the point the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, nationally, is shutting down at the end of the year.
Kitterman said that news was upsetting to the survivors in Utah who, with assistance, still like to get together for lunch every month and meet each Dec. 7 for a ceremony and bell-ringing as the clock marks the time of the attack.
"I've told them that even if there's only one of you left, we'll have a meeting," she said. "I think they're really looking forward to this Dec. 7 because it's going to be a little different, a little more elaborate," she said of the state-sponsored ceremony.