Carter has front-row seat for infamous day

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 6, 1999

Features Editor

Dec. 6, 1999 11 PM

R. C. Carter watched in terror as the war erupted right before his eyes.

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Carter had been behind a mule on a two-horse farm six months earlier when greetings came from Uncle Sam. He knew immediately what it was but he never dreamed he would have a front row seat for the opening of World War II.

After basic training, he was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit and was on his way to Hawaii, the Paradise Island, for more training "on guns."

Carter’s unit was set up about 250 yards from the harbor on the west side. He went through training and more training. There was trouble in the world but it was oceans away.

The morning of Dec. 7 began no differently from any other Sunday morning. About half the unit was preparing for breakfast and the other half was getting some extra sleep. But there would be no breakfast that morning and those sleeping were awakened to a nightmare.

"We were expecting a group of troop planes in from San Francisco that morning so the sight of all those planes didn’t alarm anybody," Carter said. "When they started shelling down on the ships is when we knew we were in a war."

As ordered, Carter hunkered down in his tent, shocked and stunned and "scared half to death."

"We didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t anything we could do," he said. "Planes came in side-by-side, 50 or more at a time. It looked more like a hundred. One bunch would come in right after the other. There were bombs going off all over the place. The explosions and fire was right there on us. They caught a sub right in the mouth of the harbor. That explosion was close enough to have blown us to bits but it didn’t. But we didn’t know what minute we might be hit. I reckon we all prayed a lot that morning."

Perhaps the trees are what saved Carter’s unit, or perhaps, it was the hand of a higher power.

After three hours, the planes stopped coming. There was an eerie calm over the island and death was all around.

Just after 11 a.m., Carter’s unit was moved out to Barber’s Point where two 16-inch guns were set up.

"If we could have gotten to those big guns earlier, we could have used them, but they were eight miles away and all that bombing was going on," Carter said. "We didn’t get a chance to get to them until things quieted down. The airmen couldn’t get to their planes either. They got killed trying."

When things did settle down that day, Carter said they knew a lot of men had been killed and a lot of ships and planes had been lost but they didn’t have any idea of the extent of the devastation.

"Some of the men that got off the ships, about 75 of them, made it to our camp and told us it was bad but we didn’t know it was as bad as it was. But we knew we were at war and we knew we wouldn’t be going home any time soon because we saw our papers thrown in the garbage can."

A short while later, it became official.

A short wave radio broadcast the news, "War has been declared."

Those words coming through the static of the field radio had a "scary" ring to them and the men were left to work it out the best they could, Carter said.

"We knew we wouldn’t be going home until it was over and we knew some of us would never see home again," Carter said. "That was the scariest feeling in the world."

For Carter and the others who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, not knowing the extent of the devastation that day was a blessing.

"If we had known, we might not have been able to handle it because it’s tough enough now," he said.