He still sees the explosion in his dreams, 68 years later.
"I can’t imagine how I survived," says Art Gregory, 95, of Huntington Beach. "I guess I was given a second life."
INTO THE BLACK
About this time, Art Gregory awoke in the water – now black with oil and flaring with fires.
Bodies, some living, some dead, were everywhere.
Gregory made it to a small motorboat, which he regularly used to ferry officers from ship to shore.
With some 40 men clinging to the sides, Gregory piloted her to the liberty dock.
"When I got there, I wasn’t going back," he admits. "I was going to get off and run to safety like everyone else."
That’s when the second wave of planes arrived.
"They started machine-gunning those guys on the dock," Gregory says. "They were knocking them down. We had no guns, nothing."
He stayed in the boat and motored back into the thick smoke – so black he could barely navigate.
One man walked into the nearby naval hospital holding his intestines in with his hands. Another walked in – missing a foot. Another bled profusely after squeezing out a porthole of the overturned USS Oklahoma.
"That’s that kind of stuff we saw," says Jack Hammett, a pharmacist’s mate who helped the wounded, consoled the dying and stacked the dead in the basement. "Guys were crying and screaming. Some were burned. Some in shock."
More than once, he told a dying man, "You’re OK, you’re going to make it," when he knew they wouldn’t.
During one break, he stepped outside with others to look at the devastation in the harbor.
"Doctors, nurses, corpsmen, we were just standing there crying like babies," says Hammett, 89, of Costa Mesa. "We began to realize the enormity of the moment."
It meant one thing: war.
Back on the Nevada, Bob Thomas prepared to die.
But the 250-kilogram bomb crashed through the deck before detonating. The explosion sent a golf-ball-sized rivet through his right leg, breaking it above the knee. A piece of shrapnel sliced open his right wrist.
"I saw a 12-foot hole in the deck," he says. "Right on the edge was one of my men. He was on fire."
Five more bombs brought the Nevada to a halt, forcing her to breach in the shallow water off Hospital Point.
Thomas rarely gets emotional when talking about the war, but he breaks down when talking about his young ammunition carrier who died without fanfare in the explosion that Thomas survived.
"He was just doing his job," Thomas says, "but he was a hero in my eyes."
That’s who Thomas will be thinking about today, when he returns to Pearl Harbor for a memorial service.
You’ll see them today in cemeteries.
A few men here. A few there. Some with walkers. Or wheelchairs. Honoring their comrades. Fewer than 100 Pearl Harbor survivors remain in Orange County.
One is Art Gregory, who spent all morning 68 years ago today picking up survivors and bringing them to shore – through the smoke and burning oil. He saved hundreds of lives. Then spent three days picking up the dead.
"It wasn’t no fun," he says. "They had to give us fishing nets because their limbs would break off in your hand."
Japan’s attack destroyed 18 U.S. warships and 347 planes and killed more than 2,300 men.
But try as they might, they couldn’t kill Art Gregory – another hero just doing his job.
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