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Local Pearl Harbor Survivor remembers day of infamy

John Roden stands in front of his vehicle, which displays his Pearl Harbor Survivor license plate. Jeff Woodburn. (click for larger version)
December 02, 2009
LITTLETON—During late November, the telephone calls begin. The callers are generally from away and are people that John Roden doesn't know and likely never will. They're interested in the Littleton River Glen resident's story for some news outlet somewhere. At 88, Roden has a lot of stories, a sharp memory and the gift of gab. After all, he was a long-time police chief in Haverhill and before that in Hampton (during the Hampton Beach riots of the early 1960s). But the writers and reporters want to hear about just one incident, which happened 68 years ago next week—Dec. 7, 1941, to be exact. "A date," President Franklin Roosevelt said, "which will live in infamy." It was, of course, on that day that the Japanese attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor and brought the U.S. into World War Two. As each year passes, the number of Pearl Harbor survivors dwindles further.

Nineteen-year-old, John Roden, a native of Arlington, Mass., was given two choices when he joined the army in 1941, to go to Philippines or Hawaii. He was a Sergeant in the Army's flying squadron (which later became the Air Force). It was a time of peace and isolation from the growing conflict in Europe. Roden chose the Pacific Island, he said, because "I was told that Hawaiian women were prettier." A few months later, he was asleep in his barracks at Hickham Field, which is adjacent to Pearl Harbor. It was Sunday or as Roden called it, "a soldier's day of rest," but there would be no rest, for what would follow would become the largest, unprovoked military attack on U.S. soil. The numbers were staggering 19 ships were sunk or disabled, 15 planes destroyed, 2,403 people killed and another 1,178 wounded.

A loud commotion startled Roden from his bunk and as his feet hit the floor, he caught a glimpse through a window facing the harbor planes bombing the U.S. Arizona, a battleship that went down along with nearly half the day's total casualties. At first, he thought, "somebody dropped a dummy," which is a training device, but when he saw the Japanese emblem on the planes he knew it was for real. "It was a terrible surprise," he said. As the soldiers emptied out of barracks and onto lawns, they were followed by bombs and bullets. One of the barrack's copper roofs shattered under fire sending jagged fragments everywhere.

Roden was face down in nothing but his skivvies while the terror reined overhead. "I was saying the Lord's prayer," he said. He thinks it was the one single reason why his life was spared. "The fellow upstairs with me," he added. Despite the panicked chaos of the assault, Roden's mind is etched with a particular event. The Japanese attackers turned their machine guns away from the gathered soldiers to an American flag that was hung from a pole in the middle of the field. "They missed it," he said, despite many shots. Thirteen years ago, when Roden returned to Pearl Harbor, he was moved by a display that contained the bullet-ridden flag that evaded the persistent enemy attack.

When it was over, Roden recalled feeling someone grab him by the foot and saying, "can you help us?" Much of the facility was destroyed, and of course the human toll was great with nearly half being killed or injured. There were no ambulances, so the injured were placed in one-ton trucks and hauled to the nearest makeshift or actual hospital. Then there was the inventory of the soldiers. As the names were called out, many were greeted with silence. "A lot never answered," Roden said.

The next day, Roosevelt spoke to a joint session of the U.S. Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Japan and Germany. Roden worked in the areas of fire control and G-2, which is intelligence, and was honorably discharged in 1945. Still, to this day, he refuses to disclose sensitive information. "I love my country," he added.

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