Pearl Harbor: He was there

Cecil Chandler served duration of WWII in his teens
Dec. 06, 2012 @ 06:56 PM

DURHAM – It’s been 71 years since the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would “live in infamy,” and indeed it has. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on our fleet at Pearl Harbor, setting off U.S. involvement in World War II.

More than 3,500 Americans were killed or wounded that day. Today is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

Cecil Chandler remembers.

Chandler, 87, of Durham, saw the airplanes and the bombs they dropped. He was just 16 at the time, and a soldier in the 27th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, standing in line for breakfast at Scofield Barracks that Sunday morning in Hawaii.

“They started bombing Wheeler Field. You could see the explosions and everything,” Chandler said. “We were all surprised. We all went in, and some got guns. Ammunition was all locked up. Some took shots up on the barracks.”

When Japanese airplanes flew over the barracks, he said, they could see the rising sun symbol. Chandler said he was too young to be worried. “It was a surprise. The whole war didn’t worry me. I’ve often thought why, but it didn’t.”

Chandler joined the Army in March 1941, when he was 15. He grew up in Durham and his mother worked at Erwin Cotton Mill. She signed for him, and nobody checked on his young age.

“Back then, people were right poor,” he said. “Back in those days, things were right hard.”

The Army, which his older brother Malcolm had joined already, was a way out. He thought he’d like the Army, and he did. Both brothers were stationed at Pearl Harbor during the attack, Malcolm Chandler at Wheeler Field. Both survived the war.

“It was right rough, you know,” Chandler said of the destruction he saw at Wheeler Field, where 35 servicemen were killed. He didn’t see fear in any of his fellow soldiers, just surprise and action.

After the second Japanese attack that morning, Chandler and the other men in his company moved out to take up beach positions. He manned a 30-caliber machine gun. After months of patrolling and training, Chandler was sent to fighting in Guadalcanal in November 1942. The 25th Division went in to relieve Marines.

“We lost men, but not like the Marines did,” he said.

Chandler, a rifleman, didn’t really make friends, he said. “You didn’t want to make friends, because they’d be dead the next day.”

He lost three real good friends in a battle taking what they called ‘Bloody Hill,’ Chandler said.

“We took a little hill and just like that, they were gone,” Chandler said. They were buried quickly nearby as the company continued to fight. Then 27 days later, after the battle, Chandler and others had to retrieve them to be reburied.

After Guadalcanal was secured, it was on to another of the Solomon Islands.

“It was a little bit tougher over there; we lost more men over there,” he said. Chandler wasn’t injured, save for a scratch from grenade shrapnel. From there, he went to New Caledonia and the Philippines, where there was more fighting. At night, the infantrymen dug into two-man foxholes, a circular defense to watch for attacking Japanese soldiers. One night, Chandler woke up and his foxhole mate, whose turn it was to stay awake, had fallen asleep. Chandler spotted something in the moonlight that looked like a rock, but soon realized it was a Japanese helmet, and the man wearing it, 10 feet away, was pulling out the pin on a grenade. Chandler shot first.

“He would have gotten both of us,” Chandler said. “It’s just one of those things.”

In 1945, he was pulled out to be rotated back home.

When Chandler came home to Durham after his June 30, 1945, discharge, after spending more than three and half years at war, he was 19.

Young soldiers, Chandler said, are your best soldiers because they didn’t have anything to worry about. Older men who were drafted had kids back home and things to worry about, he said.

“’Course you’ve got to have some people older, who have sense commanding,” he said.

Chandler was glad to see World War II end soon after his return, with the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan would not surrender, he said, and if the war had continued, he thinks millions more would have died on both sides. About 60 million people died during World War II, worldwide.

Chandler stayed in Durham and chose a career that also had significant risk -- firefighting. He was a firefighter for the Durham Fire Department for 44 1/2 years, retiring as a captain in 1993. At 87, he still lives in the log-cabin home he bought decades ago.

“I was so glad I got in and was able to fight for my country,” he said.