a louisiana survivor’s story
A Louisiana teenager looking for a full-time welding job in 1941 found himself in Hawaii, where he was an eyewitness to the attack on Pearl Harbor. 80 years later, Joseph Richard recalls the explosions, the torpedo planes and the tapping sound of trapped sailors he helped rescue.
At age 98, the memories are still vivid for this Cajun from Sunset, Louisiana. Joe Richard thought he had a great assignment as a young Navy recruit. He was sent to work as a welder at the Navy shipyard in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He arrived on the Hawaiian Islands in the summer of 1941. Richard smiles as he recalls the Hawaiian girls he met, and he saved those memories in a scrapbook.
the attack on pearl harbor
On Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941, Joe Richard had already eaten breakfast. He was below deck on the USS Rigel in Pearl Harbor eating grapes when he heard explosions. “I looked out the porthole,” Richard recalls, “and I was looking right at the Arizona. I could see that something had happened, that it blew up.” He ran topside and saw the Japanese planes attacking the USS Arizona and other battleships docked nearby. The planes were flying low over Richard’s ship as they targeted the warships with torpedoes. “One of the planes banked,” Richard says, and I saw the rising sun and the pilot waved at me.”
louisiana’s last pearl harbor survivor
from welder to pearl harbor rescuer
From the deck of the USS Rigel, Joe Richard could see the flames and destruction of the Japanese surprise attack. The battleships Arizona and Oklahoma were heavily damaged. The USS Arizona was in flames and sinking. The USS Oklahoma capsized with its hull above the surface of the water. Richard and other crewmen grabbed their equipment, boarded small boats and headed to the sinking warships.
tap, tap, tap
Joe Richard could hear tapping coming from inside the steel hulls of the ships. “The crew I was with got 33 out all together,” Richard explains. The tapping sounds continued for days. Richard recalls, “Three days later I happened to pass by the Oklahoma and I thought I heard tapping. One, two, three taps. So we give them three taps.” Richard helped cut three men out of the capsized ship. He remembers, “Just their heads were sticking out of the water.”
haunted by memories of pearl harbor
Those tapping sounds still echo in Richard’s memories of those tragic days at Pearl Harbor. He remembers hearing what sounded like someone tapping from the USS Arizona. Richard says it lasted until the day before Christmas, more than two weeks after the attack. “We didn’t tap back because we knew we couldn’t help them and we didn’t want to give them hope,” Richard says. The emotions are still raw 80 years later. “I often wonder how many, and how long some of them lived before they expired.” Fighting back tears, Richard adds that he thinks about it every day, “It’s something you never forget.”
HOW I MET ADMIRAL NIMITZ
Joe Richard continued to serve on the USS Rigel, a repair ship, throughout the war in the Pacific. At one point, Admiral Chester Nimitz was also commanding the Pacific Fleet operations from the Rigel. Richard explains how the two met….