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Pearl Harbor through the eyes of John Campbell

By Cpl. Megan Roses | Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton | December 6, 2019

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“You couldn’t sleep, even lighting a cigarette wasn’t allowed… We were on high alert, waiting for the Japanese to attack again,” explained John E. Campbell, a veteran who served seven years as a pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, of the days following Dec. 7, 1941.

Campbell was born in 1920 in Porterville, California, joining the Marine Corps at the age of 19. He attended boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, and from there he was “discharged” from active duty Marine Corps to attend the Naval Academy as a cadet in the flight school. After graduation from flight school, Campbell was commissioned as a Marine second lieutenant.

After being commissioned, John was stationed at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii. While there, he was attached to Marine Air Group 21 as a pilot for Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron 231.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, military personnel stationed at Pearl Harbor were mostly still in bed, like Campbell. Out of the blue, the ground began to tremble. No one understood what was happening, according to Campbell. Was it the real deal, or was it just a training exercise?

“I was sleeping in, when I was awakened by the sound of the Japanese attackers,” explained Campbell. “It was such a surprise, we had first thought it was a military maneuver by the Army Air Corps, but then a sergeant came running in saying ‘Get the hell out of here, this is the real thing!’ So we went out and ran into the bushes, trying to get away.”

At 7:55 a.m., the first wave of 200 Japanese aircraft rushed in on the unexpecting American base. First came the fighters came in, destroying aircraft on the airstrip, then came the fighter bombers and torpedo planes, destroying ships in the harbor. Some of the aircraft flew so close Marines on the ground could describe the faces of the Japanese pilots.

“They flew so close, I could see the gold on the pilot’s teeth,” said Campbell, remembering that devastating morning.

After the two waves of enemy aircraft pummeled Pearl Harbor, John and his fellow Marines remained on high alert, waiting for a possible follow-up attack by the Japanese that never materialized.

2,403 Americans were killed that day. Over 160 aircraft and 18 ships were destroyed or severely damaged. 78 years later, Campbell, one of the few remaining survivors, still has vivid memories of the day that went on to live in infamy.

“Pearl Harbor was a strange phenomenon,” said Campbell, “ At first it felt like I was dreaming… we had no indication what was happening. We were in a daze.”


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