The scene was so surreal that Brooks Webster later compared it to watching a movie.
All of Pearl Harbor was on fire, it seemed – heavy, black smoke drifting skyward, planes painted with the Rising Sun buzzing low overhead.
“You’ve never seen such devastation,” said Webster, now 95 and living in Aiken.
Seventy years ago, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the young Navy ensign was on shore leave and had spent the night at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
His thoughts that morning were strictly on spending time with friends on Waikiki Beach.
The phone rang as he finished shaving; his orders were to head back to his ship, the USS Detroit. He hung up, thought about it, then called back. Why did he have to go back?
“Because the Japanese are attacking!” was the excited response.
Webster rushed outside and hailed a taxi, which took him the six miles from downtown Honolulu to Pearl Harbor.
“I don’t think I ever paid (the taxi fare),” he said.
By the time he arrived, there was no way to get back on his ship. He had no choice but to stand on the pier, defenseless and powerless, and watch America’s Navy burn. Eventually, he was able to board a small boat that took him to the Detroit.
The after-action report from the Detroit shows that while Brooks was on shore, all of the antiaircraft, 3-inch and .50-caliber machine guns were fired; 10,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition were expended. The crew brought down two planes through joint fire with the neighboring USS Curtiss.
Two men received superficial wounds on the Detroit, but the whole crew was spared when an aerial torpedo passed about 10 yards astern and lodged in a nearby mud bank.
Altogether, the attack killed 2,403 U.S. personnel, including civilians, and destroyed or damaged 19 of the 96 Navy and Coast Guard vessels at Pearl Harbor that day.
The Detroit was prepared to get under way soon after Webster boarded, but it took days before the Pearl Harbor channels were clear enough for the ship to depart.
As a combat support ship, the Detroit’s mission immediately after the attack and throughout the war was to take supplies and reinforcements to troops in the Pacific. Anytime the ship came under attack, Webster went below decks with the rest of his engineering crew and missed seeing much of the fight.
Pearl Harbor, though, was enough action for Webster. He was often pressed into retelling the story right after the war, but interest dwindled over time and it’s not something he thinks about much.
“Some people are affected for the rest of their lives,” he said. “But I’m kind of easygoing. It didn’t stick with me in a vicious way.”