NIAGARA FALLS —
John H. Auchu was there.
He didn’t discuss it much with family members or friends, but when asked by a professor at Niagara University to write a paper about a personal life experience, the Niagara Falls native penned a 13-page eyewitness account of what he felt, heard and saw at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
His daughter, Falls native and Williamsville resident Linda Sheldon, recently discovered her father’s report while rummaging through some of his old belongings.
“I was just going through his old letters and his things and I thought ‘what is this?’ ” Sheldon recalled recently. “That’s the entire day of what happened — word for word. I was absolutely awestruck. I cried while reading it. I thought ‘what a treasure to have his firsthand account of that day.’ It still amazes me that I found this.”
Auchu grew up on 79th Street and joined the navy shortly after graduating from LaSalle High School in 1936. He would go on to become an NU graduate, a successful teacher of Latin with the Niagara-Wheatfield School District, a husband and a proud family man.
To do so, he first had to survive an attack that destroyed 188 U.S. aircraft, killed 2,402 Americans and wounded 1,282 more. Today marks the 70th anniversary of that attack.
“He was stationed at Pearl Harbor, soon to be getting out,” Sheldon said. “He was getting ready to go to church. They all were. He heard the bombs dropping. They thought it was war games at first, but they thought ‘why would they be doing war games during church service?’ He looked out of a port hole and saw the planes.”
Auchu was a U.S. Navy Yeoman stationed on the U.S.S. Helena at Ford Island, located in the middle of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when the first bombs fell. He recounted his experience in a paper he titled “I Was There.”
“Yes, I was there,” Auchu wrote. “I was there on that ‘day of infamy’ and, together with 750-odd of my shipmates, I witnessed, with horror-struck eyes and ears, the ‘rape’ of the fleet of the United States of America at the hands of carrier-based aircraft of the Empire of Japan at 07:55 on the morning of December 7, 1941. It was like this...”
In his paper, Auchu described what he called the beginnings of a “pleasant” Sunday morning, with crewmen eating breakfast and preparing for church services “totally and woefully unsuspecting of, and unprepared for,” what was soon to hit them with “such sudden and deadly ferocity.” Auchu said he was combing his hair and preparing to go “topside” for Mass when he heard two very loud explosions in “quick succession.”
“I’ll bet a plane crashed into the island,” Auchu recalled telling another crewman at the time.
“And then another explosion — louder,” Auchu continued. “Planes start whizzing over the ship — very low and very fast. I quickly step over and stick my head out the open porthole and look up. There, directly above me (and not very far above), I see three planes directly behind one another and traveling very fast. On the undersides of the wings of each I see two very large and very red circles. I pull my head back in and start to say something to my ‘striker’ when the loudspeaker system clicks on and I recognize the hurried voice of the officer of the deck saying words which I shall never forget — ‘all hands, man your battle stations. Break out service ammunition. The Japanese are attacking Ford Island.’
More than 300 Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes took part in the surprise airstrike that crippled the U.S. fleet in the Pacific.
Auchu thought, hoped maybe, it was all just some “goofy” drill.
“I put my hand on the hatch and lift my foot to step over the coaming (raised section of deck) into the trunk when — bang! Down I go — hard,” Auchu wrote. “I have the sensation that the deck heaved up and “smacked” me awfully hard. And my knee hurts. Now, in a flash, I know. That was a hit! Something has hit the ship! Japanese attacking Ford Island! Those red ‘suns’ on the wings of those planes. What are they doing here?!! Something out of the ordinary is going on. I jump into the trunk and down the ladder — down past three more decks — down into the bottom of the ship. Now I hear gunfire — machine guns on the main deck. Now the loud, familiar roar of the five-inch anti-aircraft guns. From the vibrations, it seems that it is the ones on the port side that are firing.”
At his station, Auchu plugged his earpiece in and began listening as orders were being shot back and forth between the ship’s bridge and the various other stations on the circuit. He recalled watching his first lieutenant attempt to get an assessment of any damages. The ship had been hit near the forward engine room. Communication to the area was dead. Auchu receives his orders: “Repeat to the captain that we have taken a torpedo on the port side of the forward engine room and that it is completely flooded. We will not be able to get underway without repairs.”
“The firing is now terrific,” Auchu recalled. “I must shout the message into the mouthpiece of my headset. It is understood on the bridge. I hear it being repeated to the captain. There is a lull in the firing. Then, it starts up again. I hear orders being shouted back and forth between gunnery and fire-control stations. I gather there are about one hundred Jap planes — bombers and fighters — very fast dropping torpedoes into the harbor - then bombs — many of our ships have been hit — many fires.”
Auchu notes that about two hours have passed. He hears a report from the Quartermaster on the bridge. The U.S.S. Arizona has been sunk. The U.S.S. Oklahoma is capsized, bottom facing up. The U.S.S. West Virginia is settled in shallow water. The California. The Nevada. The Pennsylvania. Maryland. Tennessee. All damaged by bombs, some burning, a few gone. When the Quartermaster’s report is finished, Auchu says “everyone is silent. For about an hour, everyone just sits and looks stunned.”
“I notice that my hand is starting to shake,” Auchu wrote. “I have a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. For the first time I take notice that I am filthy dirty. The clean suit that I put on this morning is ruined. One knee is all torn and bloody from the cut I received on my knee when the torpedo attacked. I can’t understand how I got so dirty.”
Then come the reports from the medical department. Nineteen aboard dead. Fifteen missing. Seven believed dead inside the flooded engine room.
Reports from the other islands follow. False accounts of Japanese transports landing on Waikiki and Japanese squads walking across roads near Diamond Head. They keep coming for the rest of the afternoon.
“I just know that they will come back and wipe us all out,” Auchu remembered thinking. “And we are so badly crippled now that we can do nothing to stop them.”
Then, at 16:00 hours, Auchu is released from his battle station and allowed to go up to see “the damage — and the wounded and the dead.”
“I feel awfully small and tired and weak,” Auchu recalled. “I don’t sleep much that night.”
It wouldn’t be the only sleepless night Auchu would have during his military career. The Helena — famously known as the U.S. fleet’s “Fightin'est Ship” — survived Pearl Harbor and went on to become the first ship ever to receive the Navy Unit Commendation, awarded by the Navy Secretary for distinguished action against the enemy with outstanding heroism. The Helena eventually sunk in July 1943 in Kula Gulf. Auchu was on it when a bomb split the ship into three pieces. He bobbed in the water, dodging sharks while waiting for help. He was among the last group of sailors to be rescued by the U.S.S. Radford.
"In the morning, they’d look around and sometimes their friends would be gone,” Sheldon said. “He was very lucky to be picked up.”
Auchu was transferred to different ships through the end of the war in 1945.
“Most of them were just boys, barely out of their teens,” Sheldon said. “They just did their jobs and didn’t complain about it. They saved the world, came back and built families and businesses that made this country great and never expected anything from anyone.”
Auchu passed away in 1982, having raised a family and lived a successful life back home. Sheldon said her dad rarely spoke of his experiences in the war and saved any discussion about Pearl Harbor for Dec. 7 alone.
“There was no Latin that day,” Sheldon said. “He only talked about Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. I still run into his old students today and they say ‘the best thing I learned from your father was about Pearl Harbor.’ I say ‘do you remember Latin?’ ”
As the number of World War II veterans continues to dwindle and with the events of Sept. 11, 2001 still fresh on the minds of most Americans, Sheldon and her brothers, Tim, who lives in the state of Washington, and David, who lives in Maryland, hope their father’s story will remind people to never forget the sacrifices made by an older generation of American soldiers.
And, of course, never forget what happened at 07:55 on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor.
“We get complacent sometimes and we forget,” Sheldon said. “Just because our country is so wonderful and we’re all so lucky to be here in the greatest nation that there ever was, we forget that others don’t feel the same way. We got caught sleeping on Sept. 11 as well as Dec. 7. The lesson learned on Dec. 7 has been somehow forgotten. I would like my father’s memories to live on.”
NIAGARA FALLS —
John H. Auchu was there.
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