Norris Burkes: Grass Valley Pearl Harbor survivor Joe Feld remembers the Day of Infamy
“My name is Joe Feld,” he tells me on our first visit. He pauses to chuckle. “My name is one of the few things I remember.”
Feld is one of 15 patients I visit in my chaplain job for Hospice of the Foothills, Grass Valley. During my past 10 visits with him, I’ve learned that he remembers more than his name. Much more.
Feld joined the U.S. Navy in 1939. After boot camp in San Diego, he was quickly assigned to the spanking-new USS Enterprise — “The Big E,” as the aircraft carrier was nicknamed.
On board, Joe joined a remarkable group of men called metalsmiths, who fixed everything broken on the aircraft except the engine. Joe spent 18 months cruising the Pacific on almost leisurely trips between San Diego and Hawaii. He describes the gorgeous tropical duty almost dismissively: “All in all, it was nothing exciting, but it was fine.”
And it was still “fine” when he and 30 other sailors were sent ashore in late November for a temporary assignment to fix land-based aircraft. As they went to work, the Enterprise returned to sea.
On Dec. 7, hours before the Enterprise was scheduled to return, Feld tells me he heard an explosion outside his barracks and thought one of our planes had crashed.
“I looked out the window to see Japanese fighters strafing the airfield. I was close enough to see the red circle on the plane.
“I called to the other fellows, ‘We’re under attack!’
“We took cover in the mess hall. Outside, the explosions were huge. I’m sure I heard when the Arizona was hit.
“The ships were sitting two in a row. Hitting one ship caused chain reactions and it was like shooting ducks in a barrel. After the Japanese took care of the ships, they came after us.
“We fell on our stomachs as bullets flew through the barracks. The wood splintered on the columns that supported the roof and plaster rained down on us.”
There wasn’t much more Feld and the others could do until it was over about three hours later.
Now, nearly 80 years later, the next part of his story adds extra trembling to his aging voice.
A Chief Boatswain mate detailed Feld and others to go recover bodies at the dock. Feld remembers seeing six battle ships lined up, all burning. The water itself seemed to be an inferno, with flames shooting eight inches high from burning surface oil.
“But,” Feld said, with a most certain pause, “We had our job to do, so we retrieved them out of the water, placed them on a blanket and brought them back to the mess hall.
“When you’re 20 years old,” he told me, “and you start fishing bodies out of the harbor, you don’t last very long. It’s a part of the war that I can hardly talk about because these guys had tried to swim in burning water to get to shore.
“But, he says again, “that’s what we did.”
He pauses for a nervous chuckle as if he still doesn’t know where to store this information.
“We stood next to burning ships with flames going maybe 100 foot high. It was hot. You’re not equipped to take all that in.
“We made three trips down to the battleships to help recover men. Well, three trips were all I could take. I had never ever seen even a broken bone in my life.
“However, we survived it and went on to other jobs that had to be done around the air station.”
Feld and his fellow sailors stayed on the island another six weeks under blackout conditions, doing those various jobs. By the first of the year, most of them returned to the Enterprise believing it was their ticket home.
Instead, he and his shipmates would sail into naval warfare history. The Enterprise drew first enemy blood in the war. Feld was aboard when the Enterprise participated in the Wake Island landing and the Doolittle Raid on mainland Japan. He personally witnessed the turn of the war in the Battle of Midway as Enterprise planes helped sink three enemy aircraft carriers and a cruiser.
On this 78th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I think you’d have to agree that Joe Feld can still remember quite a bit more than his name.
Listen to the audio of Joe Feld telling his full story at http://www.thechaplain.net.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
“Almost Heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River. Life is old there, older than the trees, Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze.”