Stan Lieberman and Steve Warren Reflect on Pearl Harbor
World War II started for Steve Warren when he popped out of a hatch on his small Navy patrol boat and saw a Japanese tail gunner staring back at him from an enemy plane about “telephone pole high” 50 feet away.It was Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese plane was headed for nearby Hickam Field at the mouth of Pearl Harbor.
Before the day was done, Warren, a young Navy seaman, would haul ammunition, tend to dying men and volunteer to help repel an invasion that never came. But the U.S. Pacific fleet was crippled, with eight battleships sunk or badly damaged.
For Stan Lieberman, the war started when a loud explosion lifted him off his bed on the third floor of a barracks at Wheeler Field north of Pearl Harbor. A Japanese plane had aimed a bomb at the barracks but missed, the bomb exploding just across the street.
By the end of the day, Lieberman, who had never shot a gun in his life, had fed ammunition into a .50-caliber machine gun, fired a rifle futilely at passing Japanese planes and hauled crates full of ammunition out of a burning hangar.
More than 80 American planes were destroyed, and more than 30 men died at Wheeler Field. Lieberman said he didn’t see a single act of fear that day. “Nobody took shelter. We all tried to help.” More than 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack.
Dec. 7, a day of confusion and carnage, was called a “date that will live in infamy,” by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It brought the United States into World War II, changed the course of the nation and the personal histories of a whole generation of Americans.
Warren and Lieberman, both of Rapid City, are two of only a handful of Pearl Harbor survivors still living in South Dakota. They shared their stories for a gathering at National American University on Tuesday, on the eve of Veterans Day. Warren, originally from Texas, and Lieberman, of Massachusetts, both joined the military in 1940, at least in part to escape harsh economic times. Lieberman tried to fire at planes.
Lieberman was a 24-year-old private in the Army Air Corps undergoing training as a photographer at Wheeler Field when the Japanese attacked Hawaii. After that first bomb hit, he and some other soldiers found a .50-caliber machine gun and fired about 50 rounds at the attacking Japanese planes before the gun heated up. They didn’t know it had to be hooked up to a water-cooling system.
Somebody gave Lieberman a 1903 Springfield rifle. He fired several shots at Japanese planes, not realizing he had to “lead” them. However, Lieberman became a good shot and an avid hunter after he moved to Rapid City at the end of the war. As the Japanese bombed and strafed Wheeler Field, destroying more than 80 American planes on the ground, Lieberman and others salvaged ammunition from burning buildings.
It was a day that Lieberman will never forget. But he also won’t forget Tuesday, Dec. 9. Two days after the Sunday attack, he was ordered to grab his cameras and board a plane that flew him over Pearl Harbor for two hours, while he photographed the smoking wreckage below.
From above, he saw hundreds of small boats searching the harbor for bodies. He saw men on the overturned hull of the battleship Oklahoma with cutting torches trying to reach the men trapped inside. “I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” Lieberman said. “It was a horrible sight.”
Dec. 7, 1941, was his last day of combat. In 1943, he was sent back to the states and eventually wound up at Rapid City Army Air Base, which became Ellsworth Air Force Base. Lieberman, now 92, got out of the military in 1945, and has spent the rest of his life in Rapid City, selling ads for KOTA, becoming active with youth baseball, and serving one year on the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Commission.
Warren helped haul ammo, wounded
Warren, a 20-year-old Navy seaman, had arrived at Pearl Harbor two days before the attack aboard a wooden yacht the Navy had purchased to be outfitted as a patrol boat. On the morning of Dec. 7, it was tied up to a steel ship, the USS Ash near the mouth of Pearl Harbor.
After the attack began, Warren helped haul ammunition to the Ash’s single gun as it fired at the Japanese planes roaring overhead, bombing and strafing Hickam Field. Neither ship had serious damage, although a stray bullet hit a bulkhead a foot away from him and dropped to the deck. Warren picked up the bullet and still has it.
Afterward, he and others were asked to help the wounded at Hickam Field. He said the men were laid out in three rows, one row for the lightly wounded, one row for those who had a chance to survive and a third row for those who were dying. He was assigned to the row of dying men. “I don’t like to talk about that much,” he said Tuesday.
Warren spent the rest of the war in the Pacific. He joked that the Navy is good about providing 30 days of leave each year. “They just forgot to tell me which year.” He served in the Pacific from Dec. 7, 1941, until his first leave in August 1944.
He later served aboard an assault transport for the invasion of Okinawa. His ship was among those targeted by dozens of Japanese kamikaze planes. Warren, now 88, got out of the Navy in 1946 and became a certified public accountant in Texas. He retired and moved to Rapid City in the early 1990s. He has been active for many years in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. The group’s motto: Remember Pearl Harbor — Keep America Alert.
Written by Steve Miller for the Rapid City Journal, Veterans Day 2009