(Editor’s note: This story about Delton Walling who will speak April 30 in Ripon was provided as a courtesy by the U.S. Air Force and Navy. It first appeared in December 2010.)
PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — When Navy 2nd Class Signalman Delton Walling climbed the water tower in the Pearl Harbor shipyard at 6 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, he wasn’t even there to start a shift — he was going to collect money from a buddy who was on duty. His shift wasn’t supposed to start till 4 p.m.
What would have been an eight-hour shift was about to turn into an 18-hour ordeal.
From 180 feet in the air, he saw the first Japanese bomb hit Ford Island at 7:56 a.m., when the first group of 183 Japanese attack planes swooped in beneath the tower to systematically destroy the U.S. fleet. The second bomb of the attacks hit the USS Utah.
“From that time on, there’s no way I could say I saw it all,” said “Wally,” now 94 years old.
Bombs began exploding around him so quickly he couldn’t even look around fast enough to see every single explosion. But he saw the chaos, death and destruction unfold.
“Within the first 15 minutes, the USS Utah sunk, the California had rolled over, and the Oklahoma was going down,” he said. “We were devastated.”
“Wally” had joined the military just a year and a half prior, at age 19. He was so excited to serve in the world’s best Navy that he was willing to do whatever it took to join. During a medical screening, the doctors had turned him away, stating that an old boxing injury — a broken finger on his right hand — had healed in such a way as to disqualify him from enlisting. He asked them if there was anything he could do, and the doctor replied, “Cut it off.”
So, he went and had his own finger medically amputated.
Now he was watching his beloved Navy, for which he had already sacrificed one of his appendages, sink into the Pacific Ocean.
“You lose your ego pretty fast,” he said, “because, my god, if the Japanese can do this in 20 minutes, you think, what else is in store? You’ve been told you’re the greatest, but you realize you aren’t. What you’ve been taught, in fifteen minutes, goes right out the window.”
Although the attacks, including a second round of 172 aircraft that flew in 30 minutes after the first, were over by 10 a.m., “Wally” was in the tower all day, until midnight.
“You can’t leave,” he said. “I mean, you just have to stay. We couldn’t come down and help with retrieving the bodies; we wouldn’t have had anything to help, anyway.”
His voice trailed as he remembered the events of the long day. It was chaos, he said, a “terrible scene” with all the ships on fire and people swimming through the mess. From his position, he had watched as six scout planes from the Enterprise came in, returning from their flight out to sea to look for Japanese aircraft carriers. Night was falling, and there was mass confusion. U.S. forces fired upon friendly aircraft, killing all but one of the six pilots.
The Japanese had done their damage. Twenty-one ships were badly wounded or sunk entirely, including the USS Arizona, Utah, and Oklahoma. One hundred eighty-eight American planes were destroyed. One thousand, one hundred seventy-eight military members and civilians were wounded. And 2,403 American lives were lost.
“Those ships are etched in my memory,” he said.
Spends the next 2½
years serving at sea
The next day, the U.S. declared war against Japan and “Wally” was promoted on the spot to E-6. He spent the rest of the war in the South Pacific — two and a half years out to sea, without even putting a foot on shore, under attack all the time. His ship was one of six that were taking on all the casualties, with only four doctors attending all the needs of the patients on board. His job was to sew up the dead in canvas bags and put their personal effects into envelopes to send to their families.
The war ended in 1945, and “Wally” separated from the U.S. Navy. He was 26 and 80 percent disabled, but he went on to become a foreman for a big paper company for 29 years. He also built houses and had the biggest tree service in California until he retired in 1976.
In 2002, Dec. 7 marked another sad anniversary when his wife of 55 years died of Alzheimer’s Disease, but he continues to live his life to the fullest, skydiving and doing as many exciting things as possible around the world and at home in Valley Springs.
“People say I’m a hero,” he said, “but I’m not. In the South Pacific lies the bodies of 54,000 who were killed in the war. They gave their lives for the freedom we have — not our lifestyle. They are my heroes, and I live to tell their story.”
Walling returns to Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial often to commemorate the events of that fateful day. This Dec. 7, which marked the 69th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, he gathered with more than 200 survivors for an annual commemoration ceremony at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
“This is home to me,” he said. “I have a lot of feeling for Hawaii and the people of Hawaii. The people are very patriotic. I’ll be buried here.”