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On a quiet morning, 90 minutes of terror

Two Navy veterans recall the surprise attack 68 years ago.

At his Burlington City, N.J. home, Pearl Harbor survivor Rowland Hoefle holds a framed group of photographs of ships on which he was stationed. ( April Saul / Staff Photographer )
At his Burlington City, N.J. home, Pearl Harbor survivor Rowland Hoefle holds a framed group of photographs of ships on which he was stationed. ( April Saul / Staff Photographer )Read more

Fleecy clouds drifted lazily overhead and the sun glinted off the water as Navy Coxswain Rowland Hoefle and other sailors plowed across Pearl Harbor in a 36-foot launch shortly before 8 a.m. that Sunday.

On the other side of Oahu, Seaman Second Class Ben Lichtman was taking in the last hours of an idyllic weekend leave spent lounging on the beach, swimming and playing cards.

Then came 90 minutes of terror.

More than 350 Japanese aircraft pounded the U.S. Pacific Fleet, killing more than 2,000 service members and civilians, destroying 188 aircraft, and sinking four battleships along with a host of other large ships.

Hoefle immediately began to haul burned sailors from the fire-engulfed water, while Lichtman - recalled early from leave - grabbed a rifle and bandoliers and did his part, patrolling huge oil storage tanks.

They saw the blazing harbor, columns of black smoke, and the bodies of comrades. They smelled burning oil and flesh, and they mourned the loss of friends, some of whom were trapped in the hulls of sunken warships.

In the 68 years that followed, Hoefle of Burlington City and Lichtman of Cherry Hill married, had children and careers, and retired. But Dec. 7, 1941, haunts their memories.

"When I think back, it was like a dream," said Hoefle, 87. "I was only 19 years old then. We grew up overnight. By the time the day was over, you were a man."

That day "stays with me all the time," added Lichtman, also 87.

They hope to join their fellow members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association today at annual ceremonies, held at Willow Grove Naval Air Station, to mark the day that led the United States into World War II. The event will be held at noon in the Joint Reserve Base Chapel and will be followed by a 21-gun salute and Taps.

The national association has roughly 4,700 members, about 40 in the Philadelphia-South Jersey area.

Hoefle was assigned to the repair ship Argonne at Pearl and was in the launch headed to a cargo ship that day when his duties suddenly changed.

From his open vessel, he saw Japanese aircraft, like angry bees, dive-bombing the docked Navy vessels.

"I saw all of them get hit - the Oklahoma, the Maryland, the Tennessee, West Virginia. . . . The way they flew in, you could have hit [the Japanese bombers] with a rock," he said.

"One-third of the harbor was on fire. The oil from the ships was burning in the waters, and guys were trying to swim away from it."

Hoefle and 17 others on his motor launch tried to rescue as many as they could but sometimes lost the race.

"We had to let the fire have them," he said. "We had to sacrifice that person so we could continue to pick up others."

Many who were retrieved were taken to land with serious, often fatal, burns.

"If you ever smelled human flesh burning, it's an odor that stays with you," Hoefle said.

"I fished some guys out of the drink who looked like charred logs. The only way you could tell they were people was from their eyes and teeth."

On land, the dead were laid together, he said. At one point, "the pile . . . started moving. One of the guys was knocked out and when he was checked, he appeared to be dead so he was put in the pile. So out came this sailor, saying, 'Hey, I ain't dead!' "

Hoefle took cutting torches to the Oklahoma, which had rolled over in the water, trapping crewmen below deck. The battleship had been hit by four torpedoes.

Sailors "were cutting through the bottom of the ship to get to them," he said. "They burned through a bulkhead and set fire to cork insulation, causing fumes that asphyxiated a couple of men."

Nearby, the West Virginia had been hit by seven torpedoes and went down. Some of its sailors could not be rescued and died long after the attack.

One of the battleship's crew members who could easily have been killed was Lichtman, a forward lookout normally assigned to the crow's nest. He would have been eye-to-eye with Japanese pilots who were buzzing the vessel.

"I was lucky," he said. On the other side of the island, "I had nothing to do but enjoy myself. Then we were rousted early and told we had to go back to Pearl."

At the base, Lichtman was amazed by the scale of destruction. "My ship was burning. With all the smoke, I couldn't see half of it," he said. "People were rushing around everywhere. I lost four or five friends I was really close with."

But there was no time to mourn. After patrolling the oil tanks, Lichtman was assigned to a heavy cruiser, the Salt Lake City. He went to Guadalcanal in 1942 and later was assigned to military blimps.

"I wouldn't go below deck for a month after Pearl Harbor, except to eat and shower," he said. "I didn't want to be trapped. I got past that during the war, though. I had the feeling that if it [death] was going to happen, it would happen."

After 20 years, Lichtman left the Navy as a chief petty officer and was working as a safety engineer for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration when he retired in 1987.

Hoefle was discharged from the Navy in 1946 as a chief boatswain's mate. He worked as a sheet metal worker for General Motors Corp. in Trenton and later ran a sheet-metal shop in a plumbing and heating supply company in Moorestown. He retired in the 1970s.

Lichtman and Hoefle have visited schools and told their stories to students from fifth grade to college.

"We didn't do anything to brag about [at Pearl Harbor], nothing outstanding," Hoefle said. "We did what we were trained to do. . . . We just did what we had to do."