TEMPLE — Ben Russell remembers the bugles calling all sailors to their posts to respond to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 72 years ago.
“The first thing I heard that morning was the sounds of being called by the bugle,” Russell said. “Everyone had a special place they were supposed to be as soon as they could get there.”
The William R. Courtney Texas State Veterans Home resident was serving on the USS Phoenix, which was in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked, sinking or seriously damaging 21 U.S. ships, including eight battleships. He was 18, and on mess duty when the Japanese began the attack on the American fleet. He was on the second deck when the Phoenix fired its first gun.
“I didn’t get to fire a shot all day long, but I heard plenty of it,” Russell said. “We were out on the main deck, and we were being instructed to take cover.”
The Phoenix attempted to venture out into the Pacific Ocean to search for fallen sailors or survivors after the bombing, and passed close by the USS Arizona as the battleship burned and went down in ruins.
“The ship was burning so hot, you could feel a blistering heat,” Russell said.
Russell — who said he had been in the U.S. Navy for a year and a half at the time of the attack — has shared stories of his Pearl Harbor experience with Carolyn Rumfield, the veterans home’s activities director. She said the Phoenix initially had trouble exiting the harbor.
“They were kind of blocked in for a while, where they couldn’t get out,” Rumfield said. “They had to maneuver around to get out.”
The Phoenix, a cruiser, was capable of moving at 34 knots, Russell said. But officers urged caution while the ship moved into the Pacific.
“We were supposed to not exceed four or five knots,” Russell, 90, said. “We were heading in a northerly direction.”
The Phoenix escaped the disaster unharmed, and joined the USS St. Louis and several other destroyers to search for Japanese aircraft carriers.
“We were out in open water for three days,” Russell said. “We made searches, but we didn’t find anybody to shoot at.”
The Phoenix later spent time escorting troop ships in Australian waters. It also patrolled the Indian Ocean, escorting convoys to Bombay and Calcutta, and was present at the evacuation of Java.
Russell, a Paron, Ark., native, has lived in Temple for 25 years. He traveled back to Hawaii with Rumfield in 2010 to attend the dedication of new facilities at the Pearl Harbor exhibit.
“Ben was one of the youngest survivors there,” Rumfield said. “The average (survivor) age was 92, and he was 87.”