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Attack on Pearl Harbor recounted

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- "About 8 a.m. all hell broke loose, people started hollering, 'general quarters, general quarters,' and bombs started dropping."

As he retells the events of that fateful day in infamy -- Dec. 7, 1941 -- Al Bertus Cory makes it sound as though his experience aboard the USS Tennessee, docked to Fox 6 in Battleship Row, could have taken place just a day or two ago.

Yet, 65 years have passed since Japan carried out its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to mark the beginning of the United States' involvement in World War II. At 7:55 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941, Cory, formerly of Heron Lake, was awakened by the barking orders of fellow shipmates, climbed from the hammock netting in which he slept and ran to his station in the boiler room seven decks below.

"The only thing below the floor plates and me was the ocean," Cory said Wednesday morning from his home in Jacksonville, Fla.

The once-Minnesota farm boy flew into action as the sounds of torpedoes thundered upon Battleship Row. The USS West Virginia, moored to the USS Tennessee, would take seven direct hits in Japan's aerial assault. With each hit it took, the fires inside the USS Tennessee's boilers went out.

"My job was to keep relighting the boilers, and it was like throwing a match inside a bucket of gasoline," Cory said. "I did that seven times."

Cory remained at his battle station for a day and a half, not knowing what was happening on deck. To pass the time, he and the two other firemen at his station waded through six to eight inches of asbestos -- material that fell from the pipes as a result of the concussions suffered during battle.

"We started throwing asbestos clogs at each other and, as a result, today I've got asbestosis," Cory said.

Some 36 hours after the attack began, Cory was finally allowed to leave his station. By then, he'd already learned the USS Oklahoma had sunk, along with the USS California and the USS Arizona. He marked his 18th birthday, on Dec. 10, down in the boiler room.

"When we did get out, I went topside, and a big boatswain's mate grabbed me and said, 'Don't get my decks dirty,'" he recalled. Boatswain's mates were responsible for keeping the deck spotless, and the last thing they wanted on their deck was a dirty fireman wearing oily and dirty shoes.

"They were still protecting their deck -- even though it had been on fire and full of blood," Cory said.

In the coming days, he had an opportunity to get a better look around.

"The Oklahoma, you could see her bottom because she was upside down, the California was sunk in her dock, and the Arizona was right alongside of us, and she was sunk and on fire," he described. "You could see Ford Island, and everything was a mess -- hangars on fire, broken airplanes and parts of airplanes just scattered all over."

The Tennessee took two bomb hits on the morning of Dec. 7, one on turret III and one on the center gun of turret II, and sustained fire damage as a result of flames shooting from the Arizona. According to a report issued by the Tennessee's commanding officer just four days later, the ship sustained no underwater damage and would be able to maneuver its way from Battleship Row. During the attack, four men aboard the USS Tennessee were killed in action, two were reported as missing in action and 22 were injured.

Three weeks after the attack, the USS Tennessee was headed for Bremerton Naval Shipyard in Washington for a complete overhaul. Cory stayed in Washington during the three-month process and left on the ship once it was ready for bombardment of the Aleutian Islands.

Far from home

Born in Sac City, Iowa, Cory moved with his family to Heron Lake in 1933, when he was just 8 years old. He attended school in Heron Lake and played on the football team. Times were tough in those days, though, and with a dad who was working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Cory decided at age 16 to head west and make his fortune. He left Heron Lake behind in May 1939 -- after "the worst winter they had in Minnesota" -- with four of his buddies, and they ended up washing dishes and bussing tables at eateries in San Francisco, Calif.

Shortly after his 17th birthday, Cory signed up for a four-year tour of duty with the U.S. Navy.

"It just sounded like a good idea. We knew the draft was going to be coming soon, and we certainly didn't want to go in the Army," Cory said. By then, the idea of getting a decent meal every day sounded appealing, as the boys had been living on peanut butter sandwiches.

Pete Peterson, Pat Hughes and Cory all were assigned to the USS Tennessee, the very ship Cory's two older brothers were already aboard -- Cletus as the band master and Jim in the engineering department. Because of his age, the younger Cory was on the "Kiddie Car Cruise," working as a compartment cleaner and assistant mess cook. He was later promoted to mess cook and eventually joined the boiler maker gang as a fireman.

Four months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Cletus was transferred to another ship, and about a month after that, Jim was transferred as well.

"They left me there to fight the war," Cory said.

The military life

In the time Cory served on the USS Tennessee, he worked his way up from Fireman First Class and Boiler Maker Striker to Boiler Maker Second Class. He went on to join amphibious ships, taking part in the invasion of Fedela, North Africa, in November 1942, followed by invasions of Gela, Sicily; Salerno, Italy and Ansio, Italy.

When Victory of Japan (V-J Day) was declared on Aug. 14, 1945, Cory was on the USS Anthedon, an advanced submarine tender, in Subic Bay, Philippines.

"It came over the loudspeaker -- the Japs have surrendered, the war is over," Cory said. His first thought: "Man, I'm going home."

While Cory was planning to leave the battleships behind, he wasn't finished in the military. He returned to the states and became a boiler inspector decommissioning ships at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. From there, he went to Newport, R.I., to overhaul and repair boilers on destroyers.

After a back injury left him unable to do that job, Cory attended photo school and changed his rank to chief photographer. He served as a combat-rated motion picture movie director, operating combat cameras in the Pacific, Korea and Indochina and filming for intelligence officials. He retired from the U.S. Navy in July 1960 as a master chief after serving his country for more than 20 years.

While Cory still calls Heron Lake home, his family left the area in the mid-1940s, ending up in Fort Lewis, Wash. Cory remains a member of the Jackson County Historical Society, and his Naval uniform and stars are on display there.

As district president of the 18-member Pearl Harbor Survivor's Association in the Jacksonville area, Cory now spends his time trying to raise funds to construct a Pearl Harbor Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii, dedicated to the military men and women who served there. Cory said the goal is to raise $50 million.

"What we're using now is the memorial over the Arizona, and we put 1.5 million people through that last year," Cory said. "The only way they can get to that (memorial) is through a little boat."

If people would like to contribute to the construction of the Pearl Harbor Memorial, donations may be made to "Pearl Harbor Memorial," in care of Al Cory, 11056 Orange Cart Way, Jacksonville, Fla. 32223-7336.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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