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Local Pearl Harbor Veteran Recalls The Event

Matt-Rivers-web-headshot Matt Rivers
Matt Rivers joined CBS 3 and The CW Philly’s Eyewitness News team ...
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By Matt Rivers

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Saturday marked the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

For most Americans now, the day will live in infamy — only in grainy, black and white photos and video. For 93 year-old Joseph Desch, though, the memory of December 7, 1941 is painfully vivid:

“I saw them picking up guys in the water, they were burned, some had no legs, everything was on fire, the ships were burning, it was bedlam,” Desch tells CBS3 Eyewitness News.

He’d only been in the Navy a few years when the Japanese attacked — enlisted in 1939 and stationed at pearl harbor.

“I was young, I was 21 years-old. What did I know about war?,” asked Desch.

That changed when the attack began just before 8 a.m. He ran to his battle station, one of eight anti-aircraft guns aboard his ship. The planes were so low, he could see enemy pilots.

“You could see his face so vivid, he had goggles on,” said Desch of a man who was in the cockpit.

As the enemy dropped bombs and torpedoes, Desch and crew fired shell after shell skyward. A picture taken from land shows his ship, the light cruiser USS Helena, smoking after taking a torpedo in her side.

“We shot down six planes that day, and we lost 33 men,” Desch explains.

Most of those men Desch knew — the 33 of the over 2,400 people that lost their lives that Sunday. Desch would emerge unscathed, though.

Two years later, aboard that same ship, he would survive her sinking in the battle of Kula Gulf. And even now, decades later, as the father and grandfather sits at his table with his wife Marian of seventy years, the emotions of that day in 1941 remain very real:

“I’ll ever forget it, it was bad, it was bad, it was bad, it was bad,” said Desch, with tears in his eyes.

And like so many other World War II veterans, Desch said he didn’t really speak about his experiences, only opening up over the last five years or so.

But his story and others like it are more important than ever to hear and to document, because with each day, there are fewer survivors left to tell them.