BONITA SPRINGS — For Russel Winsett, Dec. 7, 1941 was supposed to be a memorable day, but not an infamous one.
Winsett, now 90, remembers getting ready to leave his post on the USS Pennsylvania that morning at 8 to meet up with his cousin’s wife. She was going to take him from the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and give him a tour of the island. Although he’d been stationed at Pearl Harbor for close to a year, he hadn’t done a lot of sight-seeing and was looking forward to a day away from his bunk and machine gun post.
He heard the first bomb go off just five minutes before he was ready to leave.
“I didn’t know what the hell happened,” he said. “All I knew was that the Japs were attacking. You knew it was them because the planes were so close you could see the pilots. You could see the red sun on their flags.”
Winsett’s instincts and the blaring alarms sent him scurrying up the 50-foot mast to his machine gun station on the port side of the Pennsylvania. And there, for about an hour, he fired at every enemy plane that came into his field of vision.
“Well at first we had to break open the ammunition because the boxes were locked,” he said. “Then we were shooting so fast that we had to swap out the barrel on the gun. We’d burned the rifling out of it.”
Because his field of vision was limited to his gun’s firing radius, Winsett couldn’t get a good look at the totality of the carnage. But he remembers the sounds, of bombs exploding, of planes whizzing by and of machine gun fire.
Only after they signaled the all clear and he started climbing down from his post, did he get a full understanding of what happened.
“There were all those ships smoking and burning,” he said. “Some of those ships were on fire for a couple of days.”
The Pennsylvania was one of the lucky ships. Though it did take a direct hit, only 10 Marines on board died. Winsett didn’t know any of the men who were killed.
Other ships weren’t so lucky. All told, about 2,400 Americans died and another 1,250 were wounded. Four battleships went down. So did three other ships and 188 aircraft.
For a brief moment, Winsett’s family thought he’d been one of the men killed during the battle.
In error, someone in the government notified his parents that he’d been killed.
When asked when they found out he was alive he said, “When I sent them a letter.” But later, in the same conversation, he recalls that they probably had heard by then that he was OK.
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Russell Winsett was born March 4, 1920 in Hamilton, Ala. The son of sharecroppers, he grew up working about 100 acres with his father, growing cotton and corn.
Eager to escape the hard work of farming and the insular life of rural Alabama, Winsett joined the Navy a year after graduating high school. He did his basic training in Norfolk, Va. and was briefly stationed in Bremerton, Wash. before being shipped to Pearl Harbor.
“I had no idea what to expect,” he said of leaving Alabama for the Navy. “I just figured I’d get on a ship and go to sea.”
He had no reason to expect his six-year enlistment would turn into a 20-year career. By the time his first enlistment was up, he’d risen to the rank of chief petty officer.
“That was a pretty good place to be in the Navy,” he said.
Though by that time he’d been in enough fire fights that one could understand if Winsett decided to call it a day and move back to land.
He saw combat nine times in the Pacific theater, moving between the Philippines, Guam and Japan.
Through binoculars, he actually saw the famous flag raising on Mt. Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
“If I’d had a camera, I’d be famous,” he said.
After the war, the Navy stationed him all over the United States. He even spent a few years back at Pearl Harbor. He remembers those days fondly.
“Life was pretty good,” he said.
Eventually he retired and went to work for the postal service, retiring as a postmaster in New Jersey. Throughout that whole time, his family didn’t really know much about his military service and hadn’t heard much about his involvement in two of World War II’s most significant battles.
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Sitting in his apartment in an assisted living center in Bonita Springs, Winsett is now surrounded by memorabilia of his service. There’s a photo of him as an enlisted man. A shot of the Pennsylvania, still smoking from the Dec. 7 attack, hangs to the side of a framed flag that was hung over the U.S. capitol building last year.
Above his TV is a sign that reads “Pearl Harbor Survivor.”
In the early 2000s, his son Ronald Winsett convinced him to record an interview about his memories from the war.
“I wanted his grandchildren and great grandchildren to know about it,” Ronald Winsett said.
As his hatred for the Japanese has gradually subsided, to the point where he will ride in his son’s Japanese car even if he’d never own one himself.
Russel Winsett’s worry that people are forgetting Pearl Harbor is increasing.
“I don’t know if they even teach it in schools anymore,” he said. “People need to remember so we’ll never be as vulnerable as we were then.”
Connect with Jonathan Foerster at www.naplesnews.com/staff/jonathan_foerster