Pearl Harbor Survivor Remembers Lives Lost


The thing that comes to mind when Paul Townsend remembers Pearl Harbor is not the attack by the Japanese 62 years ago, but the human toll it took.

Townsend was in the U.S. Naval Hospital at the time of the attack, recovering from surgery to remove a cyst from his back.


Pearl Harbor survivor Paul Townsend remembers the horrors the young man in the picture experienced when the Hawaii Naval base was attacked Dec. 7, 1941.

"I'd been there since October," Townsend said. "(My back) wasn't healing right because of the tropical conditions, but I was able to be up and around, so I helped the nurses and doctors."

The first thing they did when the wounded and dead started arriving was to go around and see who could be helped.

"If they could help them, they'd give them a shot of morphine. They put an ‘x' on their foreheads to show they had been given the shot."

Townsend later helped a nurse tag the wounded.

"We went to each bunk to get what information we could. This one guy was in shock, just staring, not blinking. This little nurse asked him his name. He didn't respond, so she backhanded him across the face a couple of times and he started mumbling. She moved in close to hear what he was saying. It turned out that guy lived in Long Beach on the same street as that nurse."

Then Townsend helped with the dead. He said the hospital had a small morgue, with room for only a few bodies, so they had to put the corpses, wrapped in canvas, in the nurses' barracks.

"When that was filled up, we had to lay them out on the lawn," Townsend said. "It took the rest of the day."

The hospital morgue was the only building damaged in the attack. Townsend said a Japanese plane had been shot down and dove at the hospital. It hit a corner of the morgue, causing the building to catch fire, but damaging it only slightly. The plane ended up on the tennis court near the hospital.

"The pilot was carried out in a wicker basket."

Townsend also helped take the bodies to the cemetery. He said there were so many bodies, "it was like stacking beef in there."

His voice softened as he explained how the bodies had to be transported to the cemetery.

"When we reached the cemetery, a backhoe was digging a trench," he said. So many died Dec. 7, 1941, there was not time to arrange individual burials; a mass grave was used, he said.

There were not enough plywood coffins, so the bodies that could not be buried that night were put in a chapel at the cemetery and covered with flags.

"We went back to the hospital and everyone was on edge because there were rumors there was going to be an invasion," Townsend said.

"It was a spooky night. Usually you could see lights and hear noises from the work in the (ship)yard," he said. "It was eerie, silent, no lights. If you went outside, you were warned to wear white so the Marines wouldn't shoot you."

The next day when the smoke cleared, American soldiers were able to finally assess the damage.

"We couldn't believe it ... I was thankful I wasn't on Battleship Row."

Townsend's ship, the U.S.S. Kaula, an auxiliary cargo ship, had not been on Battleship Row either. It had been doing transport duty for supplies and personnel to Palmyra Island and other outlying islands where airstrips and other fortifications were being constructed.

The ship was only 240 feet long and before the attack it had a crew of about 45, Townsend said. After the attack, guns were added to the ship and between 60 and 75 men served on her.

His ship's task didn't change with the attack, it kept carrying supplies and personnel to the outlying islands. And Townsend did not see any battles once he returned to the Kaula.

Townsend remained at the hospital for a couple more weeks, but his stay was in a tent. He and other ambulatory patients were moved from the wards to tents following the attack.

Townsend, a native of Lincoln, Neb., joined the Navy in January 1939.

He stayed in the service for 20 years, retiring in the late 1950s. In 1943, on a trip home to Nebraska, he met Ruth, a worker in an airplane factory, and they were married.

The couple has three sons and three grandchildren, but no great-grandchildren yet.

"I'm not that old," Townsend said, "I'm only 84."

The Townsends moved to Arizona from California in 1966 to help Townsend's brother-in-law with his plumbing business. They lived in both Phoenix and Mesa, then moved to Payson about 15 years ago.

The memories of Pearl Harbor are more than 60 years old now, but Townsend still remembers all the people he saw die.

"I remember lots of friends of mine. And the nurses, they were wonderful. They were all regular Navy and on four-on, four-off watches for days. They were as responsible as anybody for taking care of all those guys," he said.

"I can't forget seeing those guys come and trying to lay them in a nice, clean bed. Some of them were burnt so bad you couldn't hardly recognize them."

Recognizable or not, Paul Townsend has not forgotten them.

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