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“I was 20 years old at that time,” recalls Leonard Peverall, remembering a long-ago Sunday morning — Dec. 7, 1941.
Peverall was a sailor on the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) and his ship was in drydock at Pearl Harbor.
“I saw the airplanes come over before anybody started firing at them,” he recalled.
“We knew they were Japanese by the thing on their wing,” he said. The “thing” he was referring to was a bright red circle representing a rising sun.
He said he didn’t realize it was an attack until they started bombing and general quarters was sounded.
Peverall, a Roanoke native and long-time resident of Bedford County, had just been in the Navy for a little more than a year. He had enlisted in 1940.
“I just got out of CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps],” he said “At that time there wasn’t too much work.”
Enlisting in the armed services seemed like a good job to him, and the Navy seemed like a better idea than the Army. He figured he would be able to sleep in a bunk and have hot chow every day.
It turned out that he didn’t have a bunk on the Pennsylvania, his first ship. The men actually slept in hammocks. Hammocks had been a traditional sleeping place for shipboard sailors in the Navy, and their use was still common when Peverall was a sailor. Later in the 20th century the standard reveille call still gave a nod to this practice: “Reveille, reveille: all hands heave out and trice up. Now reveille.”
That Sunday morning, as the Japanese aircraft began to attack, Peverall, who was part of the ship’s deck force, hurried to his general quarters station. That was a 5-inch gun on the forward, starboard side of the superstructure. The gun was on an open, single gun mount.
“I was a loader,” he said
Peverall said the gun would normally been controlled from a fire control director, but there was a problem that morning. The battleships were observing their normal peacetime, in-port holiday routine and a large portion of the ships’ crews were still ashore on liberty. That included the men who would have manned that gun director.
With nobody in the gun director, the gun crew estimated fuse settings and fired as fast as they could to put shrapnel in the air.
Peverall doesn’t know if they hit anything as a lot of ships were firing by that time.
“We wouldn’t know if we hit ‘em or somebody else hit ‘em,” he said.
The Japanese couldn’t torpedo the Pennsylvania because it was in dry dock. The battleship took a bomb hit and two destroyers in front of them in the dry dock were hit. One exploded and, after the battle, one of its torpedo tubes was found on the Pennsylvania’s deck.
Peverall wasn’t aware of this until after the fight. There was just so much noise and he was focused on his job.
Perverall said he wasn’t afraid at the time.
“When you’re 20 years old, you don’t think of something hitting you,” he said.
The Pennsylvania was sent back to the west coast for repairs and upgrades. Peverall said experienced men eventually went to other ships.
“I went to a troop transport which was a converted French luxury liner,” he said.
That was the USS Rochambeau (AP-63). The ship transported reinforcement troops to Guadalcanal and carried wounded troops back to the West Coast.
Later he served aboard a destroyer escort, the USS Canfield (DE-262).
“I put it in commission, I took it out of commission,” Peverall said. He was part of the ship’s commissioning crew and part of the crew when it was decommissioned at the end of the war.
Peverall had signed up for a six year enlistment and when his enlistment ended in 1946, he left the Navy. He was already a chief boatswain’s mate. It normally takes a dozen years to reach that rank, but Peverall did it in less than six. His promotion came when the skipper of Canfield, when it was headed back to the States at the end of the war, transferred a chief off the ship to open a chief’s billet for Peverall.
Why did he leave?
“I got married and the wife got pregnant and I decided to get out of the Navy,” he said.