Pearl Harbor vets have unique perspective on war, terrorism

'Date which will live in infamy' recalled

The message was simple and direct. “Attack on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill.”

Lawrence resident John “Buck” Newsom still has a copy of the dispatch sent from the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters in Honolulu to the USS Hopkins, an old World War I-era destroyer he was stationed on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

Newsom’s ship was about 700 miles away when the Japanese launched the sneak attack that brought the U.S. into World War II. His ship arrived at Pearl Harbor two days later on Dec. 9. He still remembers the horrific sights that greeted him.

“There were still ships burning. Bodies were still in the water. Obviously it was quite a shock,” Newsom said, as he recalled that day 64 years ago. “It was two days later and it was still a mess.”

When Newsom, now 86, saw the damage that bombs and torpedoes had done to “Battleship Row,” he thought of former classmates from the U.S. Naval Academy he knew were on some of those ships.

One of the classmates was Vincent Muirhead.

Muirhead, 86, who also lives in Lawrence, was on the battleship USS Maryland when the attack began. He and a roommate were in their stateroom preparing to go to breakfast when the “general quarters” alarm sounded, alerting ship crews to go to their battle stations.

“We looked out our porthole and there was a Japanese plane flying by. You couldn’t miss it,” Muirhead said during an interview Tuesday.

Muirhead’s ship was hit by bombs and took casualties, but it did not sink and he was not hurt. Both Muirhead and Newsom completed their Naval careers, at one point becoming aviators. Newsom kept a diary during the war, which he still has today.

Today the United States is involved in another war, this time against terrorism. Military forces have been fighting, first in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003. The parallels of how the United States became involved after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are not lost on Newsom and Muirhead.

On Sept. 11 the shock was similar to what was experienced at Pearl Harbor, but it was also different, Newsom said.

“We heard about Pearl Harbor and we were two days away from it,” he said. “We had a while for it to sink in before we actually saw it, while on Sept. 11 you sat right there and watched television as it happened.”

Muirhead noted other differences between Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11.

“In one sense it was sneaky but not in another,” he said. “(Pearl Harbor) wasn’t against civilians. It was against the military.”

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are as “different as night and day” because of the advances in war-fighting technologies, there also are still some similarities, Newsom said.

“Instead of Kamikaze suicide planes you’ve got suicide terrorists in cars and buses,” he said. “Instead of hand-to-hand combat in the jungles of Guadalcanal or some hamlet in France, you’re doing it in Baghdad. The thing about it, either way, war is hell. People get killed.”

Muirhead retired from the Navy in 1961 as a commander. He then taught at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Kansas University before retiring in 1989 as department chairman. He said he doesn’t think much about Pearl Harbor now.

“My wife’s birthday is the next day (Dec. 8) and I think about it,” he said.

Newsom still gives talks about the war to local community groups and at KU. After the war, he went on to serve as commander of the Naval ROTC program at KU in the late 1950s. He worked for several years with Centron Productions, becoming vice president of the industrial film-making company.