Vancouver man was aboard USS California during Pearl Harbor attack

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



If you go

• What: Vancouver’s annual Pearl Harbor observance.

• When: 10:30 a.m. today.

• Where: Red Cross Building in Vancouver Barracks, 605 Barnes Road, south of Officers Row.

Did you know ?

• The USS California was refloated in March 1942, and then underwent repairs and modernization before returning to combat in 1944.

When America went to war 69 years ago, John Leach fought the opening battle in his underwear.

Leach was aboard the USS California when Japanese warplanes targeted Pearl Harbor’s “Battleship Row” on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

“I was getting up, and the first torpedo knocked me on my butt,” the Vancouver veteran said a few days ago.

“I wasn’t dressed,” he said, and Leach rushed topside without stopping to grab the rest of his clothes. He saw the sky filled with planes bearing the symbol of the rising sun on their wings.

“We could see that red circle,” said Leach, who got an even closer look at an attacker.

“One flew so low I could see him grinning at us.”

Leach and another sailor took cover under the overhang of one of the warship’s gun turrets.

“A bomb exploded. I said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ and he was dead.”

Leach’s shipmate was one of an estimated 2,400 American sailors, soldiers and Marines who lost their lives that day, including almost 100 officers and crewmen on the USS California.

Leach, 89, will be among the Pearl Harbor survivors who are in Hawaii today to remember those who died in the attack. It will be his first trip back to Pearl Harbor for a commemorative event, Leach said.

While many Americans rushed to enlist in the military following the Dec. 7 attack, Leach was one of those guys who decided to — as the recruiting slogan urged — join the Navy and see the world.

Leach said he grew up in an Ohio orphanage, and occasionally lived on local farms, where he did chores.

“I’d never been out of the county,” Leach said. “The day after I graduated from high school, I joined the Navy.”

Kingfisher flight

Leach wound up on the USS California as an aviation machinist’s mate. The battleship was equipped with two observation planes that extended its patrol range and could help the ship’s gunners zero in on targets that were miles away.

Leach serviced and maintained one of the planes and also flew as a machine gunner and a radio operator.

That OS2U patrol plane — nicknamed “Kingfisher” — actually gave Leach his first taste of naval firepower. His plane was mounted on a catapult, and launching a Kingfisher pretty much amounted to blowing it into the sky, Leach said. Powder used to fire one of the ship’s big guns provided the catapult’s thrust.

“We went from zero to 60 (mph) in 60 feet,” Leach said during a conversation in his residence at Glenwood Place senior living center.

In his rear-facing back seat, Leach said, he had to bend over and grab a hand-hold or the force of the launch might damage his spine.

“If the ship happened to roll, you’d bounce right off the water,” he said.

“Coming in was even more exciting. Once, the waves were so bad the plane rolled over. We put a new engine in it overnight.”

It was a good duty, he said, but the morning of Dec. 7 was his last day aboard the California.

As burning oil from the USS Arizona floated toward his ship, Leach heard the call to abandon ship.

He swam to nearby Ford Island, where he saw some airplanes and figured that was a good place to check in.

His first assignment?

“I helped bring bodies in from the water,” said Leach, who was 20 years old back then.

“We slept in a trench that night,” he recalled. “But I was too young to be scared.”