From the VETERANS series:
Reverend James E. Blakely
U.S. Navy, Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima
Dates of service: Sept. 26,1939-October 8, 1945
[James E. Blakely (b. Jan. 8, 1920) served in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack on December 7,1941. He was at his post on the U.S.S.St. Louis in the lower handling room, setting up ammo, at 7:55 A.M. when the call to battle stations was heard.
James E. Blakely was interviewed by Nina Talbot on June 13, 2012 at the offices of Black Veterans for Social Justice,
665 Willoughby Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11206. He was 92 years old. In addition, a subsequent interview was recorded and archived at The Weeksville Heritage Center,1698 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY,11213 on August 2, 2012.]
“And the sea shall bury their dead.”
- Reverend James E. Blakely quoting Scripture,
June 13, 2012
“On the morning of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I remember that a song was playing on the radio by the Ink Spots - “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” Then, I heard the order, ‘All hands man the battle stations! This is not a drill!’ At the outset, the Americans didn’t know who they were shooting at. They mistook the Japanese planes for the British. My ship was hit two times but didn’t explode. I saw a direct hit on the S.S. Liberty, and then, men blown up in the air. I’ve never slept after that, to this day.
“The Navy men got the information by phone that it was the Japanese who were attacking them. There was no aircraft carrier in the harbor at the time between 7:55 and 8:30 A.M on that day of December 7, 1941. The men on my ship were trying to get out of the harbor. The U.S.S. St. Louis was behind the S.S Arizona, which sunk, going belly up. The harbor was a bottleneck, with ships trying to get out. Although it was a narrow passage to get around the sunken S.S. Arizona, my ship managed to get out of the harbor. I remember the Japanese fighter planes and dive bombers. There were also the suicide submarines which were designed to destroy but not return. The Japanese had managed to get those submarines into Pearl Harbor by learning when the gates opened to let garbage ships out, and then they snuck in during that time when the gates were opened. Men were killed like shooting fish in a barrel. Later the Americans retaliated for so many brutal deaths by posting Japanese skulls on top of bamboo poles.
Reverend Blakely recalled his time at Iwo Jima:
“The photograph of five Marines with a flag at Iwo Jima was based on an actual sighting of the Marines there who raised the American flag. My ship was close enough to Iwo Jima to see the volcano island and the foxholes inside with the Japanese soldiers hiding. The American allies used ammo called Flame Throwers, torch-like bombs that could be seen in the dark. I heard the Tokyo broadcast in real time as the war progressed.
“During the battle of Guadalcanal, the Japanese sent in twenty one torpedo planes.
I worked as a loader working with fifty caliber machine guns. This was 1942 - I was twenty years old. My ship was a troop transport, escorting a Marines ship.
“The Japanese used what was called tracer bullets, red hats, as there were red circles on the Japanese bomber planes. The S.S. Saratoga carried nine aircraft carriers, and the S.S. Wasp was instrumental in going over to the Pacific as battlewagons. The Japanese fishing boats signaled to the Japanese fighters that the Americans were on the way. The Japanese had the best stuff. They had twenty-one torpedo planes. You could feel the heat from the motors of those planes. All the men that got killed were stored in body bags in a frozen room until their burial at sea. The sailors attached concrete to the dead so that they would sink to the bottom of the sea. Like the Bible says: ‘And the
sea shall bury their dead.’
“I remember the twin engine jet planes Himmler originated that came from Germany. I remember President Eisenhower saying over the radio, ‘We better win the war!’ Not the Americans nor the allies were able to capture the Japanese suicide bombers. During this time on relief, sleeping on the ground next to my post, my replacement told me that the Japanese had sunk four American ships and that I slept right through it! The modern day air carriers are like floating cities.
“There was some kind of chemical smog around the ships, and no one wore gas masks. I suffered from exposure to the chemical, and none of the doctors I went to knew what it was. I saw the President and Matsonian liners in the port. There was also the U.S.S. Jackson ship used for troop transport. It was during this time that Douglas MacArthur’s quote ‘I shall return’ was heard. There were two hundred American ships that went to the Philippines and Corregidor Island to fight against the Japanese army.
“I left service in 1945. After the war I worked as a longshoreman in the late ‘40s at the docks under the Williamsburg Bridge. I earned $100 a night for five years. That was a lot in those days. There were crew called ship cleaners, who cleaned out sand and dirt that came over in ships from Europe. There was nothing left there to transport after the war- they had to load up the ships - otherwise they would bob like corks on the sea.
“My last job was working in maintenance at New York University. I’m still waiting for my WWII bonus from Little Rock, Arkansas, but I have not had luck collecting as I was told that I would have to be a current resident. I was swindled out of my Brooklyn home by a relative, and lived homeless. I was offered a rusted out trailer to live in behind a gas station by a neighborhood guy.
Reverend Blakely’s housing problems were reported in the Daily News on July 17, 2012, and July 22, 2012 by Denis Hamill The New York City Department for the Aging and Black Veterans for Social Justice, Inc. found him an apartment where he has lived for the last several months.
Reverend Blakely has spoken at many events of his WWII experiences. He spoke at Snug Harbor in July, 2012 . He was asked by the Black History Committee to speak at the Christ Baptist Church in Long Island, New York in 2011, and received a special honor at the Black Veterans for Social Justice in Brooklyn on Memorial Day, 2012.
Recently when attending a memorial service at a Long Island cemetery, Blakely describes seeing gravestones for miles around and thinking “What for?”