Last Memorial Day (2016) I had the great pleasure and honor to meet Delton E. Walling, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Marcie and I had attended a ceremony to honor Stockton service members who had made the ultimate sacrifice and were able to spend a few minutes with Mr. Walling afterward. He asked that we call him “Wally.”
He told us about the morning of December 7, 1941.
There has always been a lot of emotion attached to Pearl Harbor for me. Perhaps it is because I was at the helm of a Navy ship, the USS Mobile (LKA 115) sailing in and out of Pearl. Last year I wrote:
Every year on this day I go back in my memory and remember sailing the USS Mobile (LKA 115) into Pearl Harbor. Emotions were strong as we passed by the USS Arizona Memorial and rendered honors. Passing in silence, the simple salute from the sailors lining the deck some how seemed inadequate, yet hauntingly appropriate.
Besides piloting the Mobile past the Memorial, I have also visited the hallowed monument twice. No one visits the USS Arizona Memorial without some measure of emotion. It is an incredible reminder of the sacrificial resilience of a nation which tenaciously defends freedom. A graphic reminder of the cost of freedom. If a visit to the Memorial doesn’t make you cry…
Delton Walling remembers.
He was a young Signalman 2nd Class who wasn’t even supposed to be on duty on the morning of December 7. Collecting money, if I remember correctly, on a bet, he climbed the water tower in the Pearl Harbor shipyard at 6 a.m. The buddy who owed him the money was on duty. His ownb shift wasn’t supposed to start till 4 p.m.
Last Wednesday, Wally and his buddy, Chester “Ski” Biernacki of Jamestown, climbed back up in that tower. It was from there, 180 feet in the air, they witnessed the first Japanese bomb hit Ford Island at 7:56 a.m., when the first group of 183 Japanese attack planes swooped in beneath the tower to systematically destroy the U.S. fleet. The second bomb hit the USS Utah.
“From that time on, there’s no way I could say I saw it all,” said Wally, now 95 years old.
Bombs began exploding around him so quickly he couldn’t even look around fast enough to see every single explosion. But he saw the chaos, death and destruction unfold.
“Within the first 15 minutes, the USS Utah sunk, the California had rolled over, and the Oklahoma was going down,” he said. “We were devastated.”
Just a year and a half earlier, at the age of 19, Wally had joined the Navy. He was excited to serve, but doctors turned him away during the physical. An old boxing injury — a broken finger on his right hand — had not healed correctly and disqualified him from enlisting. He asked them if there was anything he could do. The doctor replied, “cut if off.”
So he did. Actually, he had the finger medically amputated. Now, from his perch high in the tower he helplessly watched as his beloved Navy, for which he had already sacrificed one of his appendages, sank into the Pacific Ocean.
“You lose your ego pretty fast,” he said, “because, my god, if the Japanese can do this in 20 minutes, you think, what else is in store? You’ve been told you’re the greatest, but you realize you aren’t. What you’ve been taught, in fifteen minutes, goes right out the window.”
The attacks, there was a second wave of 172 aircraft, were over by 10 a.m., but Wally remained at his post in the tower the entire day.
His voice trailed as he remembered the events of the long day. It was chaos, he said, a “terrible scene” with all the ships on fire and people swimming through the mess. From his position, he had watched as six scout planes from the Enterprise came in, returning from their flight out to sea to look for Japanese aircraft carriers. Night was falling, and there was mass confusion. U.S. forces fired upon friendly aircraft, killing all but one of the six pilots.
The Japanese had done their damage. Twenty-one ships were badly wounded or sunk entirely, including the USS Arizona, Utah, and Oklahoma. One hundred eighty-eight American planes were destroyed. One thousand, one hundred seventy-eight military members and civilians were wounded. And 2,403 American lives were lost.
“People say I’m a hero,” he said, “but I’m not. In the South Pacific lies the bodies of 54,000 who were killed in the war. They gave their lives for the freedom we have — not our lifestyle. They are my heroes, and I live to tell their story.”
Wally returns to Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial often to commemorate the events of that fateful day.
“This is home to me,” he said. “I have a lot of feeling for Hawaii and the people of Hawaii. The people are very patriotic. I’ll be buried here.”
We had an amazing few minutes with Wally, and even have an invitation which I have yet to take him up on, to visit him in Valley Springs. And even though much of the material for this post was pulled from this Manteca Bulletin article it is the same as what he told Marcie and I last spring. I imagine it isn’t something you easily, or ever, forget.