The number of Pearl Harbor survivors is now measured in the hundreds. And on the eve of the 75th anniversary, we revisit one of the sailors who lived through the attack.
George Westover talked to WPLN's Emil Moffatt just months before he died in 2015. They played taps at his burial service — a tune Westover knew well.
He was a private first class from Wichita, Kansas who played the bugle aboard the USS Tennessee when it was based at Pearl Harbor.
“It was a relaxing time,” Westover said. “Even when I had to stay aboard ship I still went with the other three buglers over to the beach to practice where we wouldn’t bother anybody.”
For a 22-year-old Marine, Hawaii wasn’t a bad place to be stationed.
“We would go ashore from the ship from Pearl Harbor into Honolulu on five dollars a week and take street car out to Waikiki."
But that lifestyle changed dramatically on a Sunday morning. It was December 7, 1941.
'We're at War'
“So I had my swimming trunks on and my blanket and a book and I was going out to the forecastle, the peak of the ship forward, to take a sun bath and there was another marine with me,” he remembered.
“And all of a sudden we look over north island and the about the time we look over there I see the airplanes exploding from the bombs and the machine gunning. The word comes over the loudspeaker. ‘General quarters, general quarters this is not a drill. We’re at war.’”
As he’d done hundreds of times during drills Westover bolted up to the top of the ship’s mast to be in position for his other responsibility as gun director. From that perch, he saw fire and smoke and destruction all around.
Westover clearly remembered how the battleships were positioned.
“In front of us was the Maryland, to her left was the Oklahoma. Then there was the Tennessee and to her left, portside was the West Virginia and astern of us was the Arizona.”
The fourth Japanese bomb to hit the Arizona sent it to the bottom of the harbor as flames shot through the air and onto the Tennessee. The West Virginia was sinking beside it. The Tennessee lost five men that day and its stern lay melting from the inferno. Years later Westover headed deeper into the Pacific theater on another ship where he would see the Tennessee again.
“Surprisingly at Iwo Jima the old USS Tennessee and the Maryland showed up for offshore bombardment and they plastered that island,” said Westover.
Moving To Tennessee
Westover stayed in the military until he retired in 1962. He got his degree and went into real estate. After spending time out west he eventually settled in Tennessee, the namesake of his beloved ship.
He lived in a small apartment in Hermitage with his wife Lucille. In February, as he swiveled in front of his desk in a leather office chair, he shared his story. By then, he was already under Hospice care.
Westover died June 30, 2015, at age 96 and buried in the Middle Tennessee Veterans Cemetery with full military honors.