Dec. 7, 1941: Bonita Springs man recalls infamous day 71 years later

Scott McIntyre/Staff 
 Russel Winsett, a Pearl Harbor survivor on the USS Pennsylvania, is 92 and one of the few survivors that's still alive today. Winsett still remembers the day in detail. Winsett was a machine gunner and said that the Japanese were flying so close, that he could see their eyes. This Dec 7th will mark 71 years of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo

Scott McIntyre/Staff Russel Winsett, a Pearl Harbor survivor on the USS Pennsylvania, is 92 and one of the few survivors that's still alive today. Winsett still remembers the day in detail. Winsett was a machine gunner and said that the Japanese were flying so close, that he could see their eyes. This Dec 7th will mark 71 years of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

After reaching his machine gun nest 50 feet above the USS Pennsylvania, as Japanese planes strafed Pearl Harbor Naval Yard, Russel Winsett had one option.

The ammunition was locked in a box, because until just before 8 a.m., peace time protocol was in place.

"I couldn't go back down... so I took what they call a dog wrench, it was a piece of pipe... (and) I broke the lock. I almost got court-martialed," recalled Winsett, 92, sitting opposite a sign in his Bonita Springs apartment: "A Pearl Harbor Survivor."

"That was it," he said. "A little quick thinking on my part."

He talked about Dec. 7, 1941, and the balance of his 20 years in the U.S. Navy with precision, laying out the facts. The Japanese pilots were so close, he said, that he "could see their eyeballs."

Growing up, his middle son says his father closed down about the war. It was only when the family made a DVD for the children and grandchildren in 2000 that their patriarch shared the details. It's a story he'll share this afternoon in Bonita Springs, at the American Legion and the VFW Post 4254, when the organizations honor the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the flash point that triggered U.S. involvement in World War II.

"I try to keep it out of my mind, really," Winsett says. "That way it doesn't drive me crazy. Crazier," the retired chief gunner's mate chuckles.

'I'm outta here'

At 20, Russel Winsett wanted out of Hamilton, Ala.

One of five children born to sharecroppers, he reached his limit on hauling in corn and cotton.

"I said to my father, when this crop is harvested, I'll be outta here," Winsett remembered.

He and two buddies signed up for the Navy, but he was rejected because of a kidney problem. But when he returned a week later, he was able to enlist — too late to join his friends at boot camp, though.

They didn't end up in Bremerton, Wash., with him. Or on the USS Pennsylvania.

Framed on the wall of his room in a Bonita Springs senior living facility is a letter he wrote to his parents in the summer of 1941, when the USS Pennsylvania was out at sea and the crew was running gun drills "day and night."

He's still OK, he tells them, and "Honolulu really is pretty."

When the first bombs hit Pearl Harbor at 7:55 a.m. on a Sunday, the gunner — not yet a husband or father — was shaved and showered, set to go ashore to tour the island.

The Pennsylvania was in dry dock, undergoing repairs to her propeller, when the first bombs hit.

Winsett's crewmates scrambled to their positions as the alarm sounded, and returned fire.

"You could see the red ball (of the Japanese flag) on their planes," Winsett said. "We knew they were the enemy. But I didn't know why they were attacking us."

He wasn't the only gunner to break into the ammunition stash, according to a Dec. 16, 1941, report from C.M. Cooke, Jr., commanding officer of the Pennsylvania, to the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific fleet.

"In many cases men knocked off locks of ammunition ready boxes and ready stowages, not waiting for keys," Cooke noted.

A 500-pound bomb dropped from about 10,000 to 12,000 feet, blowing up the ship's deck in a 20-by-20-foot patch.

Twenty-four men died on the Pennsylvania, and slightly more than that were wounded. In two waves, about 350 Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor and other military installations, damaging or destroying 18 ships and killing nearly 2,400 Americans and wounding about 1,100.

The Pennsylvania's crew fired off nearly 61,000 rounds during the two-hour attack, Cooke reported.

"There was no flinching. There was no necessity of urging men to action," Cooke wrote of his men. "Rather was there perhaps in some cases over zeal in the matter of expending ammunition."

'The worst part's over'

By Dec. 12, the Pennsylvania was back at sea. Winsett was on it, physically unscathed.

He would see other ships and ports, riding out the remainder of the war from Guantanamo to Casablanca, the Panama Canal to the South Pacific, where his ship, the USS Foote, would take a direct hit.

"I knew I couldn't get out (of the service). And I did the best I could to end the damn thing. But boy, when you're out at sea and a submarine comes up and throws a torpedo into you, you ain't got much hope," Winsett said.

He saw the flag raised on Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima in February 1945. By August, the war was over.

Winsett became a father of three, and ultimately a great-grandfather. He retired from the Navy after 20 years, he said, following the reasoning "Hey, the worst part's over."

He was then a postal worker, before exchanging New Jersey for Largo with he wife Anne, who died 17 years ago.

His middle son, Ronald, brought him down to Bonita Springs almost three years ago. He was the one who spearheaded the family documentary in 2000, then updated it recently with a second home movie.

"Growing up, never once did he ever talk about his experience during Pearl Harbor or Iwo Jima, or any of the battles he had been in," he said of his father opening up in recent years.

"To find out what he had seen and what he had experienced was just incredible."

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