Years ago while working at a TV station in Lynchburg, Virginia, I had the privilege of doing a story on James Hazelwood. Hazelwood was a retired Navy Seal who served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Although he served his country for 32 years and was awarded two Purple Hearts, he rarely talked about his military service. He wanted to avoid being singled out as a “hero” for doing something he considered his duty.
It took some work to get him to talk for the TV piece, but he did it, and we became friends. After I left Virginia, we wrote letters, talked on the phone, and I even visited him (and his wife Della) at their home in Campbell County. I still have some of the Pearl Harbor books he sent me as gifts. Hazelwood, who died in June of 2004, was a Pearl Harbor survivor.
I recently came across a folder containing his letters and transcripts of some of our conversations. Today, on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I am remembering my friend James Hazelwood.
He was 24 years old and had just arrived in Hawaii in December of 1941. He was off-duty and on his way to the pool for an early Sunday morning swim when the surprise attack began.
“The bomb hit the USS Arizona and I was on a pier about 500 yards away,” he recalled.
He was immediately put into service. Wearing only his swim trucks, he joined several others on a small boat as they began pulling bodies from the water. The water was covered with thick black oil leaking from the ships which made the job extremely difficult.
“We used a boat hook and started picking bodies out of the water.”
They did so with ears cocked to the sky, fearful Japanese planes would be back any minute for another attack.
The only place big enough to hold the many men who died was that same swimming pool Hazelwood had been headed to for his morning swim. He and others drained the pool and began stacking the bodies.
“Many of these people had no identification of any sort," he remembered. "They were sleeping (at the time of the attack) and had no dog tags or wallets or clothing, except their skivvy drawers. And they were covered in black oil."
The hope was that someone from each of the ships would be able to identify the victims later.
Some were eventually identified, some were not. Hazelwood recalled that as they pulled bodies from the water, they also retrieved numerous body parts.
“Later on they had bits and pieces of 18 different people. Not enough to make one person, but there were parts from 18 different people.”
The remains of those 18 unknowns were buried together.
“They used a bulldozer, wrapped them up in canvas and buried them on a place called Red Hill.”
In the years and decades that followed, he noticed he never saw much written in the Pearl Harbor history books about how they had to use the swimming pool as a temporary morgue. It was a disturbing memory that remained very vivid for him.
Hazelwood later went on to serve with the Navy’s elite Underwater Demolition Teams doing classified work in a variety of places like Vietnam, the details of which he took with him to his grave. And he would have preferred not talking about what happened at Pearl Harbor.
“It was very difficult for me. It’s very difficult for me to think about, anyway.”
And yet, he felt there were lessons to be learned from what happened all those years ago. He said the possibility of being attacked at home was very real and we must be watchful, wary, and prepared. We talked about that in our last transcribed conversation from September of 2003.
“Be alert,” he said. “Be alert and be on guard. Remember Pearl Harbor? It can happen. It happened at the World Trade Center, did it not?”
On this day – December 7th - I honor James Hazelwood, those who served with him, and those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. And I remember Pearl Harbor.
2304 Americans were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor - December 7th, 1941