KINGMAN - On the day that still lives in infamy, Howard "Howie" Snell heard the deafening booms as he headed to the mess deck for breakfast.
It was precisely five minutes before 8 a.m. and the 18-year-old sailor thought he had nothing to do on that Sunday morning nearly 72 years ago.
"I didn't know what it was," said Snell, 90, who joined the Navy while still in high school in February 1941.
Moments later, Snell understood all too well what was causing the thunderous racket: 183 Japanese warplanes had sneak-attacked Pearl Harbor.
It was, in today's vernacular, an epic beat-down.
Forty were torpedo planes, 49 were level bombers, 51 were dive-bombers and 43 were fighters. Less than an hour later, a second wave of 170 warplanes emblazoned with the Rising Sun attacked.
Fifty-four level bombers, 80 dive-bombers and 36 fighters.
The Japanese victory might have come in the form of a deadly sucker punch, but it was total. More than 2,000 sailors died that morning along with 218 soldiers, 109 Marines and 35 civilians. Nearly 2,000 more were wounded - the overwhelming majority were members of Snell's beloved U.S. Navy.
Battleship Row was the focus of the Japanese attack. The Arizona and Oklahoma were obliterated. The California and West Virginia were sunk, but were raised, repaired and returned to duty.
The Nevada, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Tennessee were damaged, but lived to fight another day.
Every single one of the battleships in port that morning was hit.
The Utah, an auxiliary ship, was destroyed and the Oglala, a minelayer, was sunk, as were three auxiliary ships. Three cruisers and four destroyers were damaged, as were two other auxiliary ships. One of them, the Vestal, was docked next to the Arizona.
The Navy also lost 92 aircraft and the U.S. Army Air Force lost 77 for a total of 169. Another 159 were damaged.
The tale of the tape for the Japanese was comparably minimal: Only 29 of the 353 aircraft that took part in the attack were shot down, killing 55 pilots and co-pilots.
Five midget submarines were sunk along with 9 Japanese sailors. The biggest loss for the Japanese came when a Class I submarine containing 71 sailors was sunk.
But Pearl Harbor was just the first battle. A war awaited and America was out to settle the score.
Snell was on the island of Oahu at the submarine base, where he was in cooks and bakers school.
He has told his story probably a thousand times over the past seven decades, but his eyes still stare at something distant, something about a mile away, when he remembers Dec. 7 1941.
Sitting in the warm comfort of the modest, well-maintained Kingman home he shares with his wife, Marjorie, Snell seems to drift back in time when a reporter prods and pokes for the details.
"The Oklahoma, she'd already capsized by the time I looked over at Battleship Row," he said. "At that time, the Arizona blew. They issued me an old Springfield rifle that hadn't been shot since World War I.
"I shot at the Japanese planes, but I didn't hit anything. I wish I could say I did. I wish I could say I shot one of them down, but I didn't."
By 9:45 a.m. the Japanese broke off the attack, less than two hours after it began.
"We turned our guns back into the armory and we baked field bread for three solid days in one of the only galleys that wasn't damaged," Snell said.
Snell was soon assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, the most decorated ship in World War II and the ship that saw more action against Japan than any other.
His first week onboard, Snell met Adm. William Halsey.
Known as the Big E, she was one of only three aircraft carriers commissioned prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor to survive the war.
The Enterprise left Pearl Harbor nine days before the attack and was returning from Wake Island on Dec. 7.
Snell and his shipmates saw action in the Battle of Midway, the Battle of the Eastern Solomons and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
They also saw action during the Guadalcanal campaign, the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
"When we came back to Pearl we didn't know why, but we started heading west. We steamed for a few days and one day I looked off the port quarter and saw the carrier Hornet.
"We were going to bomb Tokyo."
Of all the battles, all the men lost, all the ships sunk or damaged, the Battle of Midway, said Snell, was the most important of the war in the Pacific Theater and it occurred only six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"We sank four of their carriers," he said. "We really didn't know what we had accomplished at the time and we weren't happy the Yorktown (another carrier) had sunk. We lost most of our aircraft and went back and stayed in Hawaiian waters to qualify new pilots."
Of the 41 Devastator warplanes that flew from the decks of the Enterprise, Yorktown and Hornet at Midway, only four returned.
In August of 1942, the Enterprise was hit by a bomb and returned to Pearl Harbor for repairs.
For the first of four times, the Japanese declared the great ship had been sunk. The wartime propaganda earned Big E the nickname, the Grey Ghost.
The Lexington was sunk. The Hornet was sunk. The Wasp was sunk, but the Enterprise lived on.
In the summer of 1943, the Enterprise docked in Pearl Harbor for repairs and Snell transferred to the USS Morrison, a destroyer.
"That's when I became a sailor," he said. "I fought in eight battles on the Morrison. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a Japanese plane dropped a bomb right on the Morrison's deck. Fire nearly sank her, but she didn't go down.
In that same battle the Birmingham was blown up.
"They lost 185 men. We were picking up survivors."
While modest almost to the point of being introverted, Snell was a hero that day.
He dove into the Philippine Sea and saved a sailor who was floundering. The act earned him a commendation.
Back in the states in 1944, while the Morrison was under repair, Snell met, wooed and married his first wife, Dorothy, in the span of 11 days.
He said he asked her to dance and she said yes, but not until she delivered a little friendly sarcasm in his direction.
"She said, 'You're kind of short, aren't you?' But we danced that night and we danced for the next 57 years."
As a teenager at Pearl Harbor, Snell said he didn't understand death.
"I didn't really know what war and death were until the Eastern Solomons," he said. "When I talk to groups, I ask them if they ever watched 'Saving Private Ryan.' I tell them the first 22 minutes of that movie depict what war is. It is hell."
The Battle of Okinawa was the last for the Morrison. The ship sank a Japanese submarine early in the morning on March 31.
The crew picked up a lone survivor, which would lead to some good-natured ribbing.
Snell made the man rice, but he refused to eat it. "They all said, 'See, even the (Japanese) won't eat your cooking.'"
Snell also got his hands on fresh, frozen raspberries.
"That was a real treat," he said. "I made 35 gallons of ice cream."
Unfortunately, neither Snell nor the crew ever had the chance to enjoy the dessert.
On May 4, 1945, four desperate kamikaze pilots crashed their planes into the destroyer just north of Okinawa.
The pilots were determined. They flew like acrobats through heavy antiaircraft fire, using their planes as bombs.
"We went down fast," Snell said. "It took about three or four minutes, and the ice cream went down with the ship."
So did 155 men, most of whom were below deck. Snell was one of 187 survivors who were plucked from the sea by a landing craft about three hours after she sank.
The war ended three months later, but Snell remained a sailor.
He retired from active duty in 1962, but he retired from the galley years earlier.
He changed his rating and spent the remainder of his career in the military and later as a civilian government employee "quieting" submarines. The war wasn't hot like the one he fought against Japan.
It was the Cold War, the ultimate game of cat and mouse, and submarines had to play both roles.
"I had a great career and I've had a great life," he said.
As for hard feelings, he has none.
"I have no animosity against the Japanese," he said. "They're our friends now and they weren't then. But we won. We got the W and they got the L."
Dorothy died in 2001 after a lengthy illness. For years afterward, Snell lived the carefree life of a bachelor.
Then he met Marjorie, 79, on the dating website EHarmony.com.
"His profile said he liked country-western music and classical music," said Marjorie. "So I figured, why not?"
She did have one condition, however. Marjorie was not about to leave Arizona.
"I told her, 'I'm an old sailor,'" said Snell. "Home is whatever port I'm in."
Note: Living History is a series about Kingman-area residents who had their own roles in key moments in time. If you have one of those stories, contact Doug McMurdo at email@example.com or call him at 753-6397, ext. 226.
Very nice photos of Howie and dear Marjorie. So thankful God continues to watch over you Howie and the way you and Marjorie bless others in the Kingman community at numerous events. Praise God.
Posted: Monday, April 22, 2013
Article comment by:
What a great story and experience that Howie has had. I hope that he enjoys many years living here in Kingman, Thank you Howie for your great service to America
Posted: Monday, April 22, 2013
Article comment by:
Great story. I wonder what ship he was on. A family member of mine was on the USS Arizona and didn't make it. It's strange to think that there could still be someone out there that may have known him.
Posted: Monday, April 22, 2013
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This was a well written accounting of Mr. Snell's Pearl Harbor memories. My Father-in-law, Harold Whaley was also a Pearl Harbor survivor and passed away almost 3 years ago at the age of 91.
He was on his ship near the Arizona when she went down and didn't really like to talk much about his experiences. He did take my daughter to Hawaii when she was 10 and made an impression upon her about the dramatic events of that day with their visit to the Arizona Memorial.
I think it's important to hear about these stories, and so happy that this WWII hero is still enjoying the life he fought so hard for all those years ago.