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Living To Tell The Horrible Tale Of Pearl Harbor

Nov 10, 2011
Originally published on November 11, 2011 7:54 am

Warning: Some of the content included here may be disturbing.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Thousands of Americans were killed that day. But Frank Curre, who was just a teenager when he enlisted in the Navy, survived the onslaught.

"When I got out of high school, I went looking for a job. Couldn't find it, so I told Mama, 'I'm joining the Navy — and you've got to sign the papers, because I'm only 17.' I said, 'If you don't sign the papers for me, Mama, I'll go downtown and get a hobo to sign 'em.' "

In the end, Curre didn't have to resort to that — his mother finally agreed to sign his enlistment papers.

So he left his hometown in Texas, and in August, Curre boarded his new home: the USS Tennessee, a battleship. The ship began making its way toward America's main base in the Pacific.

"We headed for Pearl Harbor," he says. "I'd never even heard of it. I didn't even know what it was."

"The day of the attacks, I was mess cooking," he says. "We hear this big blast — instantaneously, another blast — and we come up there, topside. I saw the first god-awful sight I witnessed that day. That's when the bomb come down that hit the Arizona."

As Curre remembers it, it was a horrible spectacle.

"That ship come 12 to 15 foot in the air, broke in two and settled back down," he says. "If you'd had a bag of popcorn and you'd went out here in the breeze and threw it up in the air — that was bodies that went out all over that harbor."

In the frenzied time that followed the initial attack, Curre and other military personnel tried to find survivors and victims.

"All those that could started picking 'em up as soon as they could," he says.

Curre recalls that they used barges to try to collect as many of the dead and wounded as they could find.

"One of 'em come up," he said, "he approached a young man in the water, and as he approached him, the young man — severely burned and everything — he said, 'Do not touch me.' He said, 'I've gotta touch you, I've gotta get you medical help.'

"And when he reached out to help the boy in, what he grabbed a hold of come right off in his hand, just like that boy had been cooked on a stove."

Curre suffers from mesothelioma, a type of cancer often caused by exposure to asbestos. But many of the effects of his service are invisible to eye, he says:

I still have the nightmares, never got over the nightmares. And with God as my witness, I read my paper this morning — and right now, I can't tell you what I read. I can't remember.

But what happened on that day is tattooed on your soul. There's no way I can forget that. I wish to God I could.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this Veteran's Day from StoryCorps, we have memories from Pearl Harbor. It was attacked 70 years ago next month. Thousands of people were killed. Today, we're going to hear from a veteran who survived. And we should warn you that parts of his story – which is going to last about two minutes – may be very difficult to hear.

Frank Curre came to StoryCorps in Waco, Texas, to talk about how he ended up on the U.S.S. Tennessee.

FRANK CURRE: When I got out of high school, I went looking for a job. Couldn't find it, so I told Mama, I'm joining the Navy - and you have to sign the papers because I'm only 17. I said, if you don't sign the papers for me, Mama, I'll go downtown and get a hobo to sign 'em. Finally convinced her.

And I went aboard the battleship in August. We headed for Pearl Harbor. I'd never even heard of it. I didn't even know what it was.

The day of the attacks, I was mess cooking. We hear this big blast; instantaneously, another blast, and we come up there, topside. I saw the first god-awful sight I witnessed that day. That's when the bomb come down that hit the Arizona.

That ship come 12 to 15 foot in the air, broke in two, and settled back down. If you'd had a bag of popcorn and you'd went out here in the breeze and threw it up in the air - that was bodies that went out all over that harbor. All those that could, started picking 'em up as soon as they could. We going to get in the barges, help them go pick bodies up out of the water.

One of 'em come up. He said he approached a young man in the water, and as he approached him, the young man - severely burned and everything - he said, do not touch me. He said, I've got to touch you; I've got to get you medical help.

And when he reached out to help the boy in, what he grabbed a hold of come right off in his hand, just like that boy had been cooked on a stove. I still have the nightmares, never got over the nightmares.

And with God as my witness, I read my paper this morning and right now, I can't tell you what I read. I can't remember it. But what happened on that day is tattooed on your soul. There's no way I can forget that. I wish to God I could.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Frank Curre at StoryCorps in Waco, Texas. His recording, and all the others, are archived at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. And you can find the podcast at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.