'Please, God, don’t let me die': The attack on Pearl Harbor and three life stories that emerged

Three Arizonans are among a dwindling number of survivors from the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. In the years that followed, they wrote their own history.

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Army Cpl. Maurice Storck was asleep in the barracks on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when he heard the noise outside, sharp blasts that sounded too real to be training exercises.

Marvin Rewerts, a gunner’s mate first class in the Navy, had finished shaving aboard the USS Thornton and was headed topside to wait for a transport into Honolulu. He saw a line of planes and wondered idly if they were the aircraft scheduled to fly in that day.

On Ford Island, Jack Holder, a Navy flight engineer, was lined up for roll call in the hangar. An aircraft screamed overhead and a moment later, the ground shook. Holder ran outside with the other men. The next hangar over was burning, ripped apart. The air filled with flames and smoke — and aircraft, each emblazoned with a red rising-sun insignia.

“We knew,” Holder said. “We knew immediately what had happened.”

Seventy-five years later, the three Arizonans are among a dwindling number of survivors from the Japanese attack that drew America into World War II.

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Pearl Harbor survivors Jack Holder, Maurice Storck and Marvin Rewerts talk about the attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

They never met in Hawaii or anywhere else in the war and share only their survival of the events of that infamous day, those few minutes of bewilderment and horror as the world changed.

They retell the events from different vantage points — a ship, an Army barracks, a Navy hangar — and then their stories diverge.

For Storck, Rewerts and Holder, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a beginning, a marker in time. In the years that followed, they wrote their own history.

Maurice Storck

The trader corporal

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The Saturday before the attack, Dec. 6, 1941, the combat engineers from Company B of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division worked construction on rows of barracks at the Navy’s new seaplane base on Kaneohe Bay.

Maurice Storck, a corporal, finished his duties and returned to Schofield Barracks, the military installation about 20 miles north of Pearl Harbor where the company was based. He was set to sell show tickets at the movie theater that night.

At 19, Storck was about the same age as most of the other enlisted men, but his Army lineage stretched back further. His father had served in World War I and was a recruiting sergeant. Maurice joined the Maine Army National Guard at the age of 14 and, three years later, volunteered for active duty, landing in the old Hawaiian Division.

“I could drill a battalion at 13 years old,” he would tell people.

In Hawaii, he joined the combat engineers and learned demolition. They trained in the mountains, building trails, running reconnaissance. Building barracks at Kaneohe was routine by comparison.

Some of the men were still asleep in Schofield when the first bombs fell. The blasts sounded distant at first.

“By the time we got dressed and got outside, we saw Japanese planes going overhead,” Storck said. “At first we thought it was training. When they hit Wheeler Field and let those things out, we thought they were flour sacks because that’s what they used in maneuvers.”

Some of the enemy planes targeted Wheeler Field, about 18 miles from Pearl Harbor. The bombs hit the base mess hall. The building blew up off its foundation and shattered. The breakfast crowds had been at their peak.

“That killed a lot of people,” Storck said. “There were so many bodies. They wiped out the airplanes at Wheeler Field.”

The next day, Storck was assigned to take a squad up Nu’uanu Pali, the pass that connected Honolulu to the other side of Oahu. The mission: Blow the road in case the Japanese landed on the other side, where there were more wide-open beaches.

“We sat there for a month,” Storck said. “We didn’t know if the Japanese would come in with a landing force, so we sat there.”

Finally, the Army sent Storck into the Pacific theater. After a stop at Fiji to hook up water systems, Storck and his unit moved on to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where U.S. forces were stretched thin.

The crews cut trails, built pillboxes on coastal cliffs, improvised bridges when the infantry needed to cross a river.

“We had air raids every night,” Storck said. “One guy, we called him Washing Machine Charlie, showed up just about the same time every night. Finally, one night, they shot him down.”

From his first days on Oahu, Storck had earned a reputation as a trader, a scavenger, the guy who could get you anything: cigarettes, chocolate, flint to start a fire in the jungle. A rifle. He would boast that he was the only soldier who could get aboard any Navy ship at Guadalcanal, greasing his way past landing officers who needed a few hard-to-get items.

One day, a general summoned him, told Storck he needed a particular bottle of ink for a Parker 51 fountain pen. Could he manage that?

“I can try,” Stork said, but he soon found no one in any of the warships had ever heard of that ink. He asked for an extra day or two.

At the airbase, he ran into the pilot of an ambulance plane headed to Australia. The pilot saw a Japanese pistol Storck had acquired. He asked what it could cost.

“It’s not for sale,” Storck replied, the trader in his head on alert. “But when you fly out, bring me back a bottle of Parker 51 ink and the gun’s yours.”

A day or so later, Storck delivered the ink to the general, without the Japanese pistol.

In 1945, Storck was aboard a transport ship when a suicide plane slammed into the deck. The impact blew Storck into the ship’s hold, injuring his back so severely, he wound up in a body cast. The Army sent him to a rehabilitation base outside Aukland, New Zealand.

As he recovered, Storck started to get out a little. He discovered a milk bar near the movie theater where he could buy ice cream, a treat he could never get in the jungles of the Pacific. He was taken by the woman behind the counter. Her tag read Nancy.

“How about going into town with me tonight?” he asked. She said no.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Tell me the initial of your middle name and if I get it right, you have to go in town with me.”

She looked at him. “J.”

“June.”

“Someone told you!”

“No,” he said. “That’s my mother’s name.”

They were engaged not long after, although the marriage and the honeymoon nearly landed Storck in prison for desertion, a charge he avoided in part because he was so well-liked up and down the chain of command.

When he was discharged, he turned to a new passion: stamps and coins. He worked as a dealer until 1970, when he retired and bought a motor home, traveling the country with Nancy June. In 1978, they settled in Tucson, in a mobile-home park where he still lives on his own at 94. He volunteers his time every day sending stamps and coins to shut-in veterans from the VA Hospital. He loves the work. It keeps his mind sharp.

“I remember every day of the nine years I was in the service,” he said, flipping through photos and scrapbooks. He looked up at a picture of the Company B engineers, taken just before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“I could name every man in that picture,” he said. “There’s only two of us left alive.”

Storck spent much of his time on islands, on transport ships between islands, how a bomber ended his Army career on the deck of a ship. He can’t help but think back to when he enlisted.

“I always figured if I got wounded, I could crawl a long ways on land, but I wasn’t a very good swimmer,” he said. “That’s why I joined the Army.”

Marvin Rewerts

At the start and the end

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Sunday was a day off for Marvin Rewerts, a gunner’s mate first class on the USS Thornton, a World War I destroyer that had been refitted as a seaplane tender.

Rewerts was on duty the day before and was ready for some downtime in Honolulu. He rose early as he did every day — if you’re not in line for breakfast when it’s served, you’re out of luck — and had finished shaving and was on his way up to the deck.

He had been posted at Pearl Harbor about six months earlier after training aboard a minesweeper. The experiences were all new for Rewerts, who was born in a farming town in Minnesota.

He enlisted because there were few jobs available that paid real money. The $21 a month (plus room and board) the Navy offered was a fortune compared with the 20 cents a day he could earn at home.

He had watched the Army draft his older brother and he wanted to choose his own service. The Navy offered him a chance to go to submarine school, but he declined: “I want to stay on top of the water,” he told the recruiters.

The Thornton was tied up off the submarine base at Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, near the destroyer USS Hulbert.

On deck, Rewerts saw the planes before he heard them. He knew there were some American planes due in that day, but these didn’t look right. They were the wrong ones.

“They’re not ours,” he thought.

The first explosions echoed across the harbor. The Thornton’s crew raced for their battle stations. The ship was smaller and older than some of the others, but its crew jumped on every available weapon: four .50-caliber machine guns, three Lewis guns, three Browning automatic rifles, a dozen .30-caliber Springfield rifles.

“The planes were going right across our fantail,” Rewerts said. “It was a run to the battleships. If they’d dropped a bomb on us, I would have been gone.”

The crews discovered that some ammunition was left over from target practice the day before. Rewerts ran below to bring up the real firepower.

MORE: USS Arizona special series

Nearby, the Hulbert was firing its anti-aircraft guns. The two ships fought through the first wave and the second.

No one on the Thornton was injured.

From 2014: The survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona

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Over the next few years, Rewerts sailed back and forth across the Pacific, moving Marines into position on one island or the next. In battle, his ship would throw up a smokescreen for the approaching battleships.

Once, he ran into his younger brother, who had also joined the Navy, on an island in the Philippines. Although he never saw his older brother during the war, he would learn later that all three played roles in the American invasion of Okinawa in 1945.

By then, Rewerts was serving aboard the destroyer USS Borie, which had joined the fleet in January 1945, fresh from the shipyards in New Jersey.

The Borie supported the American bombing of Iwo Jima before it was sent to Okinawa. Rewerts figured by then he had seen about every island in the Pacific.

In August 1945, the Borie moved into Tokyo Bay.

“We knew we were going to win by then,” he said. “They were saying this was one of the last battles of the war.”

The Americans had dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima three days earlier and were about to drop the second on Nagasaki on Aug. 9.

Rewerts was on the Borie’s deck when he looked up and saw the Japanese suicide bomber.

“I knew he was going to hit,” Rewerts said. “He had a smile on his face, that son-of-a …” He trailed off.

“If I hadn’t ducked, I wouldn’t be here today.”

The plane slammed into the Borie, between the mast and the 5-inch gun director. The attack killed 48 men. Rewerts was one of 66 injured.

He was moved to a hospital ship, then to Guam. Surgeons kept cutting more shrapnel from his body. The blast had ripped through his right side, an injury that would trouble him all of his life.

“I lay on that deck for quite a while,” he said. “All they could do was patch you up.”

After he was discharged in 1946, he returned to Minnesota. He married, but couldn’t take the cold weather anymore. He moved to Arizona.

He took his family back to Pearl Harbor for the 45th anniversary in 1986, but turned his attention to jobs in the refrigeration business. At 94, he has moved into an assisted-living center in Goodyear.

Every day at 4:30 p.m., he indulges in his only vice: a beer.

“It was scary back then,” he said, trying to recite a few more details about the attack on Pearl Harbor. “It’s a heckuva feeling when you don’t know what’s going to happen to you. Heckuva feeling.”

Jack Holder

Around the world in a war

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The first bomb that fell on Ford Island the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, ripped through a hangar barely 100 yards from where Jack Holder stood waiting for morning roll call.

The island, in the middle of Pearl Harbor, housed critical Navy aircraft. Around its edges, American warships sat moored, the strength of the Pacific fleet in one place.

Holder saw the hangar next to his engulfed in fire and smoke. The men looked around and watched the morning sky fill with aircraft, each painted with a red rising-sun insignia.

Another crewman pulled at Holder. A sewer line was under construction behind their hangar.

“Let’s go for the ditch,” he said. “Follow me.”

They ran and jumped in the ditch. One of the Japanese planes saw them and circled. Machine-gun fire strafed the dirt. Holder could see the pilot in his leather helmet, his grinning white teeth. He hunkered deeper.

“Please, God,” he thought, “don’t let me die in this ditch."

Holder had been stationed at Pearl Harbor just shy of one year. He had been assigned to a squadron of PBY aircraft, utility seaplanes used by the Navy for patrol missions, search and rescue operations, as convoy escorts. The planes were well armed and excelled in nighttime attacks.

The planes lacked landing gear and required a ground crew to install temporary “beaching gear” for takeoffs and landings. Holder was assigned to a beach crew for his first four months in Hawaii. He moved on to a plane crew as a first mechanic and waste gunner. About eight months in, Holder became a flight engineer.

Holder had been drawn to flying since his youngest days. He could remember as a kid hearing about Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight. His mother’s older brother was a barnstorming pilot.

But the Navy wasn’t in Holder’s sight, not at first. He grew up in north Texas, near Wichita Falls, the son of a poor dirt farmer. They lived in a four-room shack without electricity or running water. When he started high school, he rode a 1927 green Ford Model A truck with a wooden bench down each side and canvas curtains that did little to keep out the cold.

After high school, he traveled for a while with a buddy. They stopped once in Safford and picked cotton to earn money. They met a recent Navy veteran who told them about good opportunities in Washington state.

After months on the road, Holder returned home and enlisted in the Navy. He went through boot camp in San Diego and, when he finished, he trained as an aviation machinist mate. On Dec. 6, 1940, he boarded a tanker headed for Pearl Harbor and, six days later, was assigned to a PBY squadron on Ford Island.

A year later, he watched the world change from a ditch behind his hangar.

“I saw devastation I’ll never forget,” he said. American battleships on fire, sinking into the water. “I saw guys swimming ashore, trying to reach shore through burning oil. Some didn’t make it. Some died on the beach.”

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On Ford Island, sandbags were used to construct machine-gun pits. Holder and two crewmates manned one for three days and nights, surviving on bologna sandwiches and coffee, fighting mosquitoes.

“We had no idea where the Japanese forces were or if they planned to return,” he said. “With every ship noise or every aircraft noise we heard, we knew it was them.”

On the fourth day, they returned to their barracks. They were issued postcards with two sentences. The first one said “I’ve been wounded.” The second one said, “I’m OK, don’t worry.” Holder checked the second and sent it to his mother back in Texas.

“She received the card 11 days later,” Holder said. “My father told me my mother was devastated waiting to hear. She had no idea if I’d lived or died. He said she got on her knees and prayed to God that if he’d save her son, she’d spend the rest of her life working for him. And she did.”

In May, Holder’s unit was on its way to Midway, patrolling the sea, searching for the Japanese fleet. At last, they spotted their quarry.

“It looked like black pepper on a white egg,” Holder said. “Battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, troop ships.”

The battle for Midway raged, but the Americans gained the edge. On one of the last days of fighting, Holder's plane flew 13 hours, armed with four 500-pound bombs. Early in the afternoon, they caught a Japanese submarine attempting to submerge. They made two passes, dropping the first bomb on the sub’s fantail, a second one behind the conning tower.

“We made six circles around it, watching it sink,” Holder said.

Late in the day, they lost contact with Midway. They didn’t know if the Americans held the position, so they set down at sea and drifted. Holder unrolled his sleeping bag on a wing, tied himself to an antenna and slept. At sunup, they got the news: Success.

Holder's squadron flew missions over Guadalcanal and the rest of the Solomon Islands. Then in 1943, he was transferred, first back to San Diego, then around the world to Devonshire, England, where he was assigned to the crew of a B-24 Liberator bomber, on missions over the English Channel and along the French Coast.

With that, he joined a small number of World War II servicemen who fought in both the Pacific and European theaters.

In April 1948, he was discharged. He worked as a flight engineer for Braniff Airways in Texas and joined a charter company in Los Angeles. He bought a small plane and logged hours flying before work, at lunch, after work, until he could get his pilot's license. After the charter company sold its aircraft, he answered an ad for Union Oil Co. of California and flew 10 years as a captain of a corporate aircraft.

“It was the most exhilarating, most wonderful job I ever had,” he said.

Holder landed in Phoenix when he joined Allied Signal, which later become Honeywell. He took some time away and ran an oil-exploration business back in Texas, but retired with Allied and settled in Arizona.

At 94, he lives in Sun Lakes and, he said, plays a lot of golf.

He recently wrote a book about his experiences at Pearl Harbor and in World War II. It was the first time he had told his story in such detail. Like many veterans of the generation, he kept his war years to himself for a long time.

Now he wants to make sure everyone hears the stories, to make sure no one forgets what happened that day at Pearl Harbor, what happened in the war that altered history forever.

A year ago, he was signing autographs at a hotel in Honolulu when a man stopped by and bought Holder’s book. Later, Holder got an email from the man, who said he had a good friend who was in the Navy, in Holder’s squadron at Pearl Harbor. The man’s friend saw Holder’s book, read about how he ran and jumped in the ditch and recognized the scene. He was one of the crewmen in the same ditch.

Holder paused as he told the story.

“For a long time, I didn’t think anyone was interested,” Holder said. “I didn’t think they cared. But now people tell me they don’t want to hear all this from a historian. They want to hear it from the people who were there. And I was.”

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