Off Beat: This battle wouldn’t wait for him to put on rest of his clothes

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

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John Leach’s name was on a list of local Pearl Harbor survivors we ran on Dec. 7, when four veterans looked back on the attack some 73 years ago.

That narrative didn’t include his story, but it’s a good one: Leach fought the battle in his underwear.

Leach died Dec. 23, and his obituary noted that he was aboard the battleship USS California at Pearl Harbor.

Leach expanded on that four years ago, in a Columbian story advancing the local Pearl Harbor observance on Dec. 7, 2010.

“I was getting up, and the first torpedo knocked me on my butt,” he said.

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

“We could see that red circle. One (pilot) flew so low I could see him grinning at us.”

Leach and another sailor took cover under the overhang of a gun turret.

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

Leach’s shipmate was one of 2,400 American sailors, soldiers and Marines who were killed, including almost 100 officers and crewmen on the California.

The ship had two Kingfisher patrol planes. Leach maintained one and also flew as a machine gunner and a radio operator.

That plane gave Leach his first taste of naval firepower. It was mounted on a catapult, and launching it amounted to blowing it into the sky. Powder like that used to fire one of the ship’s guns provided the catapult’s thrust.

“We went from zero to 60 (mph) in 60 feet,” Leach said. In his rear-facing back seat, Leach had to bend over and grab a hand hold or the force of the launch might damage his spine.

It was good duty, he said, but Dec. 7 was his last day aboard the California. After the call to abandon ship, he swam to nearby Ford Island. He saw some planes and figured it was a good place for an aviation machinist’s mate. But that didn’t have anything to do with his first assignment.

“I helped bring bodies in from the water,” Leach said.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.