CARLSBAD — Even though Veterans Day passed, the residents of Rancho Carlsbad were treated to an emotional and powerful veteran speaker on Nov. 12.
Stewart “Stu” Hedley, a former sailor in the Navy, spoke about surviving one of the country’s greatest tragedies, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The 98-year-old San Diego resident led his nearly 90-minute speech definitely, emphatically and proudly, stating no ship technically sunk during the two-hour attack on Dec. 7, 1941. The reason, he said, is because all of them, even the USS Arizona, still had or have flags attached to them, thus not fulfilling the requirement of a sunken ship.
Regardless, the man who witnessed the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, World War II and more, found a standing ovation after his speech. Ray Larson, a resident of the retirement community, invited Hedley to speak after meeting him 10 years ago.
“We got to have this guy speak at our church,” Larson said of the event nine years ago. “Everybody loved him. We loved his M and Ms, his mind and memory. He hasn’t forgotten a thing.”
The spry veteran spoke about his journey into the Navy, which almost didn’t happen as he was denied entry because he only stood 4-feet, 11-inches, at 17 years old. However, a growth spurt he attributes to God pushed him over the limit and onto the USS West Virginia.
On the fateful day, where many sailors and soldiers were given extra time to sleep, Hedley was preparing to go on a picnic with his then girlfriend and his sister. However, he couldn’t find his shoes and after, and a cup of coffee before the meet up, an emergency call came blaring through the ship to man battle stations.
The Japanese surprise attack came at 7:55 a.m. and due to miscalculations from Washington, D.C., much of the fleet was anchored at Pearl Harbor, including along the famed Battleship Row.
Hedley was a gun pointer for a 16-inch cannon on his battleship, but it was useless against the much faster Japanese fighters, not to mention errant shells could’ve endangered civilians on land, he said.
He nearly had his feet blown off after an explosion below him sent a hatch flying through the air. Shrapnel from other ships peppered the West Virginia, including a larger piece killing a chief, who was near Hedley.
“There was such an impact and it blew the hatch off and blew my foot pedals off. We were blown backward,” Hedley explained. “There were 50-caliber bullets spitting all over the place.”
Eventually, he and another were able to jump into the water and swim, much of it underwater to avoid strafing, back to land and into a medical facility. He recalled begin covered in oil, noting near his ship a mountain of flames about 40 feet was burning from the oil on the water.
Then came the second wave of Japanese fighters at 8:55 a.m. One dropped a bomb on the dispensary forcing Hedley and his crewmate back into action.
They ran back to the West Virginia to fight the fires, which was at a 15-degree angle, but an ensign opened several vales, and the ship righted itself as the bills keel of the West Virginia and Tennessee locked and prevented the West Virginia from capsizing.
“The fire was so intense, once we opened the door and the air came in, it blew out the portholes,” Hedley said of the fire. “My clothes (in his locker) turned to ashes because of the heat.”
At one point during the first wave, Hedley recalled seeing a Japanese pilot, co-pilot and navigator smiling as they rained down 50-caliber bullets. He also recalled seeing the Arizona and Oklahoma explode, choking up at remembering the 1,175 men aboard the Arizona who never had the chance to fight.
As for Hedley, he returned to the West Virginia and continue his service throughout the war, never having been injured despite losing more than 550 crewmates. He eventually landed in Tokyo to serve as an occupying force before returning home, where he married his wife, Wanda, in 1949, and raised five children.
Steve Puterski covers Carlsbad and Vista. For tips or story ideas, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @StevePuterski.