Harriett later worked in civil service at Cherry Point.
Tom Harriett was 17 years old when he and a friend played “hooky” from school in Jones County and went to New Bern in 1939, a day that changed his life.
In the city, they saw a Navy recruiting sign “Join the Navy, See the World.” He joined and saw the world, as well as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
He saw it up close, while aboard a naval cruiser, the USS St. Louis, not far from “battleship row.”
The Saturday evening before the attack — which destroyed 19 vessels, including eight battleships and more than 300 airplanes — Harriett had gone ashore for a quick and quiet evening: a hot dog at the YMCA and back to the ship. He arrived in time to see the Saturday night movie, in the new technicolor. The movie title has been lost to his memory, although the next day is quite clear.
The next morning was routine, although he had seen signs of war in the air.
“For months, they had been preaching about it (an attack),” he recalled.
Even on the Friday before the attack, he said there were signs — a submarine was spotted in the Pacific Ocean not far from the base. There were orders to sink it, because it was not American, but nothing else official, according to what he knew at the time.
He was by then a 2nd Class Petty Officer and felt more could have been done.
“The fleet should have been identified to go on alert,” he said, sitting at his kitchen table Tuesday morning at his Pollocksville home where he and his wife, Sybil, have lived since January 1964.
As it was that Dec. 7 morning, chow was important to military men and he had his breakfast and was sitting on his bunk, two stories below the main deck, but above the water line.
He was about to read a newspaper he had picked up the evening before, to find something about the Duke University football team hosting the upcoming Rose Bowl. It had been moved to Durham because of fears of an attack on the West Coast.
He heard machine gun fire, which he thought to be from a nearby island practice area.
It came again and he poked his head out of a port hole.
What he saw were two Japanese aircraft dropping torpedoes.
“All I saw were cockpits and wings,” he said.
He hurried up to the guns.
“I thought, ‘this is it.’ I must have been white as a sheet,” he continued, adding he didn’t really look to the sky, being more intent on getting the guns ready as he hurried up the steps to the deck.
The guns of the St. Louis began firing and within a span of 40 minutes brought down three Japanese aircraft, per official records.
“I have no idea how they know that,” he said of the haze, smoke, noise and confusion.
Later, the St. Louis began to move out of the harbor, and Harriett recalls the scene was exactly like those of famous photos of the attack — ships on their sides, others sunk into the mud and most ablaze amid black smoke.
His ship had to use fire hoses to keep flames away while it was still under attack from a mini-sub’s torpedoes.
It missed, striking a shoal about 200 yards from the St. Louis.
“We were called ‘The Lucky Lou,’” he said.
While some ships sent a barrage of depth charges into the waters against the mini-subs, his ship joined others in the open sea to go looking for the Japanese fleet, but without luck.
They returned to Pearl three days later and began work as an escort vessel, as well as transporting casualties to the West Coast and bringing troops back to Hawaii.
By the end of the war in 1945, with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his ship was near Japan, preparing for an invasion on the Japanese homeland.
The bombs were dropped before the men of the St. Louis knew the war was essentially over.
“I had never heard of an atomic bomb, but I am sure glad they had it,” he said.
He spent 10 years in the Navy and would have made it a career except for an opportunity to join the civilian service at the then somewhat new Cherry Point air station. He was involved in work on the development of the Harrier while at Cherry Point and retired in 1975.
He had been a farm boy in Jones County in 1939, learning to plow the tobacco fields behind a mule when he and his friend decided to skip school.
It propelled him — with no regrets — into World War II and perhaps the most famous day in American history.
In recollection over the past 75 years, he said there was no time for self-examining thought while it was happening, just some flashes.
They were flashes up close at history from a group that is now shrinking in number each passing year — about only 2,000, according to the USS Arizona Memorial in 2014.
“We used to have reunions until about four or five years ago,” Harriett added. “Now, there just are hardly any left.”