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Woodbury Pearl Harbor survivors recall 'day of infamy'

Gene Heiberger and John Merthan, both residents of Stonecrest Senior Living in Woodbury, were members of the United States Navy when the Japanese attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor.

It's been 70 years since John Merthan and Gene Heiberger, both residents of Woodbury Senior Living in Woodbury, woke up to the sounds of war on Dec. 7, 1941 - the day Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese - and both men can remember the events of the "date which will live in infamy" like it was yesterday.

Both Heiberger, 92, and Merthan, 90, were members of the naval reserve, out of St. Paul, in 1941 before going to work aboard the U.S.S. Ward, the destroyer that fired the first shots of World War II.

Neither Heiberger nor Merthan were aboard the U.S.S. Ward on the morning of Dec. 7.

"Before the war, it was good to be in Pearl Harbor," Heiberger said.

Heiberger, who earned the rank of storekeeper second class, was working as a pay officer at the time of the attack, so he had just gotten to work when he started hearing the airplanes.

"On Sunday morning, I heard these bombs dropping and my first thought was 'The Air Force is practicing again,'" Heiberger said. "But then the sirens had started and I looked out the window and saw a plane going by with a big orange circle - 'this isn't practice, it's the (Japanese)."

Heiberger and the other men in the pay office quickly ran outside to see what was happening.

"We dashed out to the edge of the water where planes were dropping bombs," he said. "The whole harbor was on fire."

Before Heiberger knew what to do, he started to look for a place to hide in order to get out of the line of fire.

"We ducked behind big barrels and anything we could find," he said. "We had to stay out of harm's way.

"Your objective was to stay alive."

Throughout the entire day, Heiberger said he felt utterly helpless.

"We didn't know what to do," he said. "I was frustrated because I was helpless."

On the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, Merthan, fireman third class, was about to be released from the naval hospital and return to duty aboard the U.S.S. Ward when he and an acquaintance were standing near a window in the hospital, looking out over the harbor when they saw the first plane.

Merthan could also see the red markings on the side of the plane.

"I knew right away who they were because I could see the meatball on the wing," he said.

The plane came in at rooftop level, so Merthan decided to move down to the street in case there was going to be bombing.

Once on the street, Merthan came face to face with a Japanese airplane.

"He looked at me and I looked back at him and he shot at me," he said.

Merthan didn't have much time to watch the battle because he was quickly pulled into service carrying the wounded into the hospital.

Many of the patients had been seriously burned in the attacks.

"They were just burnt to a crisp," he said.

But the worst job came later that day, when Merthan was put to work carrying dead soldiers to the basement of the nurses' quarters.

Even though Merthan said he saw some horrible sights that day, it didn't slow him down.

"I knew what I had to do," he said.

The aftermath

Both Heiberger and Merthan said they weren't particularly surprised by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In fact, Heiberger said he saw it coming as far back as July.

"In July, we were saying we weren't going to be going home in December, we were going to be fighting the Japanese," he said. "That's all we talked about so we expected it."

In fact, the Navy would frequently run practices and drills to prepare for an attack by the Japanese.

"As far as I'm concerned, we were ready," Merthan said.

However, Heiberger said his biggest frustration was that all of the naval ships were brought back into the harbor on Dec. 6.

"It shouldn't have happened," he said.

More than 2,000 people were killed during the attack.

"The American people did not want to fight," Heiberger said, "but Pearl Harbor changed people's minds.

"After Pearl Harbor it was, 'Let me at him, let me at him.'"

Both Heiberger and Merthan have since been back to Pearl Harbor.

Merthan has returned to Pearl Harbor multiple times for conferences, but seeing Pearl Harbor again hasn't been that difficult for him.

"I don't get sentimental over all of that," he said.

In contrast though, visiting Pearl Harbor again in 1977 brought back some painful memories for Heiberger.

"When I went to the memorial and saw all those names, it just broke me up," he said. "I haven't been back since because it's too difficult - it still gets me. War changes you."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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