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 Conflict, 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 didn’t want to be 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 eventually agreed, 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.
Years after his death, I 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 remember 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 to work. Wearing only his swim trucks, he joined several others on a small boat and they began pulling bodies from the water. Thick black oil leaking from the ships covered everything, making the job extremely difficult.
“We used a boat hook and started picking bodies out of the water,” he said.
As they worked, they kept their heads half-cocked toward the sky, listening for the sound of Japanese planes they thought might return at any minute to attack again.
It turned out the only place big enough to hold the many men they kept pulling from the water was the same swimming pool Hazelwood had been heading for earlier that morning. He and the others drained the pool and began stacking the bodies.
“Many of these people had no identification of any sort," he remembered. "They were sleeping when the attack happened and had no dog tags or wallets or clothing. Nothing 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, others 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,” he said.
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, Hazelwood noticed he never saw much written in the Pearl Harbor history books about how they had to use that swimming pool as a temporary morgue. It was a disturbing memory that remained very vivid for him.
He later went on to serve with the Navy’s elite Underwater Demolition Teams doing classified work in a variety of places like Vietnam. He took the details of whatever work he did on behalf of his country to his grave. He didn’t talk about Vietnam and he would have preferred not to talk about Pearl Harbor.
“It was very difficult for me,” he said. “It’s very difficult for me to think about.”
And yet, he knew 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 always 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 made the ultimate sacrifice. And I remember Pearl Harbor.
2304 Americans were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor - December 7th, 1941