Tribune Staff Writer
(Editor’s note: This story about Don Herther’s experiences at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, is being reprinted with permission and updates provided by his son, David Herther.)
At 94, rural Vallonia resident Don Herther has trouble remembering some of the important dates in his life, including when he retired and when he moved to his home in northern Washington County.
But the veteran of the U.S. Navy has little trouble remembering where he was Dec. 7, 1941.
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“God willing, I may be one of the last survivors of Pearl Harbor,” Herther said. “I was just a teenager.”
Herther joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in Indianapolis when he was 17. It was a decision that kept him from graduating from high school.
“I was in the reserves, and they mobilized us before graduation,” Herther said.
Herther said he was lured into the Navy after watching news shorts, most of which showed a battle wagon plowing through the waves.
“I wanted to be a part of that,” he said.
After mobilization, Herther said he was sent to northern Indiana and was assigned to the USS Sacramento, a gunboat.
“We sailed through the St. Lawrence Seaway to Boston and New York,” Herther said.
The USS Sacramento eventually sailed through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast before arriving Aug. 15, 1941, at Pearl Harbor.
Herther’s job was in the ship’s boiler room, where he was one of four assigned to light burners on boilers whenever the captain sought more steam or less.
Sudden stops were dangerous, Herther said.
Because of its age, the USS Sacramento would spend the months leading up to the Japanese attack Dec. 7, 1941, in a repair berth.
Herther said all of the ship’s steam engines were torn down before the attack, meaning the ship couldn’t move.
“We should have got underway the minute the attack began because a moving target is a lot harder to hit,” Herther said.
At the time of the attack, Herther was assigned as an engineer to a boat crew getting ready to haul a party to church.
“They blew general quarters, and that killed taking a church party ashore,” Herther said.
That meant everyone was supposed to go to their duty stations, so Herther headed to the boiler room.
But because there was no need to fire up the boilers and the ship wasn’t going anywhere, the engineers along with the quartermasters were sent to an armory to obtain weapons and begin shooting at the Japanese planes flying overhead.
Herther and the others went to the pier and began firing their weapons. It was hard to tell, however, if they hit anything, Herther said.
“They were going by so fast,” he said. “I know I fired 45 rounds of ammo because there was one clip left in the bandolier.”
Herther said the men stayed out most of the rest of that day because of the fears of another attack, but he remembers little else of what happened.
“I couldn’t even tell you if I ate lunch,” Herther said. “We got beat so bad that day, and we weren’t even at war.”
He said Pearl Harbor is a huge complex, and the USS Sacramento wasn’t near Ford Island, where four battleships were sunk and three others were damaged.
“I didn’t see a lot of the destruction,” he said. “At least we were safe. The good Lord had his hand over me.”
Herther said the Japanese didn’t bomb large fuel tanks in their efforts.
“I guess they wanted to keep them when they invaded,” he said.
Repairs were eventually made to the USS Sacramento.
“They sent us over to Hilo to protect the town from a submarine attack,” Herther said.
The ship, in fact, would spend most of the rest of the war in the Hawaiian Islands, he said.
“The good Lord got me through everything,” he said.
Herther, who left active duty as a master chief, would remain in the Naval Reserve for nearly half his life.
“I got called up again (after the war),” Herther said. “I spent 42 years in the Naval Reserves.”
The Navy has been good to Herther’s family, he said.
“My son, David, is a retired commander,” he said.
And his granddaughter, Rebecca Herther, was a lieutenant commander in the Navy. The mother of three, who is a doctor, recently left the Navy to pursue a civilian career.
Herther has made three trips to Pearl Harbor since the war.
“I was in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association,” he said. That organization ceased to exist a year ago because of a lack of members for officers, Herther said.
After the war, he married his wife, Leona. They were married for 53 years.
“She was the most wonderful wife a man could have,” he said.
Herther later moved to Lutheran Community Home in Seymour but now lives with his son, David Herther, in Vallonia.
David Herther said his father has problems remembering recent events and becomes confused.
He still remembers Pearl Harbor, David said.
“I think it gives him a little bit of identity,” he said. “It’s something big that happened in his life and gives him focus.”
Don Herther and seven Hoosier survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, were honored in pre-race ceremonies leading up to the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 26.
David Herther’s sister, Cathy Peterson, took him to the event.
Who: Dale Herther
Military background: Survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. He joined the Naval Reserves at age 17 and was soon activated.
Afterward: Herther, who lived in Indianapolis before he moved to the area in the 1980s, was a certified safety professional who worked for insurance companies before retiring.