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Dec. 7, 1941: Two survivors share their memories from Pearl Harbor

By Phyllis Zimmerman, Special to the Press & Journal
Posted 12/13/17

On Dec. 7, the 76th anniversary of a fateful date that still lives in infamy, two Pearl Harbor survivors were the featured speakers at the Central Pennsylvania WWII Roundtable held at Grace United …

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Dec. 7, 1941: Two survivors share their memories from Pearl Harbor

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On Dec. 7, the 76th anniversary of a fateful date that still lives in infamy, two Pearl Harbor survivors were the featured speakers at the Central Pennsylvania WWII Roundtable held at Grace United Methodist Church in Hummelstown.

A crowd of hundreds filled the church’s sanctuary to capacity to hear the recollections of Allentown native Richard “Dick” Schimmel and William Bonelli, a native of Indiana, Pennsylvania. Both men were witnesses to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor that killed 2,403 Americans and catapulted our country into war.

When organizer Charlie Lloyd asked how many World War II veterans were in the audience that night, about 25 men raised their hands to hearty applause.

Schimmel, 94, was shipped to the Hawaiian island of Oahu after enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1940 to join the new Signal Aircraft Warning Service. He was assigned as a plotter and switchboard operator at the Fort Shafter information center near Pearl Harbor, but first helped to install mobile radar stations that captured the data. Radar was a new technology the United States had recently acquired from England, he noted.

“When they told me I was going in radar, I said, ‘What’s that?’” Schimmel recalled with a laugh.

No one was scheduled to work at the Opana Radar Station in northeast Oahu on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, but two technicians were there nonetheless, Schimmel said. Technician Joe Lockard was teaching colleague George Elliot how to use radar. Elliot detected a group of airplanes approaching and Lockard dutifully notified the information center at Fort Shafter where Schimmel usually worked.

Schimmel, however, was off duty, relieved the night before by Joe McDonald. McDonald passed the warning onto the lieutenant in charge, who assumed it was American planes coming from California and told McDonald to forget about it.

When McDonald left his shift around 7:40, he warned Schimmel and other friends that the Japanese were coming. That’s when the bombing started.

Bonelli, 95, was stationed with the Army Air Corps at Hickam Air Field near Pearl Harbor as an aircraft mechanic. On Dec. 7, 1941, he and a friend were walking to the mess hall for breakfast around 7:30 a.m. when they noticed three airplanes flying overhead.

“At first I said as a joke, ‘We might be at war,’” Bonelli recalled. After all, no one was expecting an enemy attack that day, he said. When bombs began falling, however, Bonelli ran to the barracks and grabbed his rifle and .45 pistol.

“It lasted 20 to 30 minutes. Then it was done and gone,” Bonelli described. “The Navy really did take the brunt of it. They’re confined to the ships and they only can walk so far.”

Schimmel felt obligated to help out at hospitals. “When something like that happens, you do what you can to help out. That’s how Americans are,” he said.

Bonelli stood guard at a hospital for several hours after the attack. While there, he saw workers dig a trench and fill it with dismembered human limbs. “That was hard to take,” he said.

Three-quarters of a century later, Bonelli still appears angry that he and others weren’t adequately warned of a potential attack by the Japanese.

“I can’t understand why we weren’t on the alert, with what the Japanese were doing in China for oil. We were surprised and there was a communiqué from D.C. telling us to expect action. I didn’t learn about this until three or four years ago. The word was, ‘Don’t pass this on to a lower ranking officer,” he said.

The Central Pennsylvania WWII Roundtable meets monthly at Grace Methodist Church, 433 E. Main St., Hummelstown. Anyone with an interest in World War II is welcome to attend. For more information, contact Charlie Lloyd at charlie.centralpaww2rt@gmail.com or 717-503-2862 or visit www.centralpaww2roundtable.org.

 

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