Bristol veteran had front-row seat to battle at Pearl Harbor

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor James Werner, 98, of Bristol, talks about his time in the service. Werner was on work duty Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes flew over Pearl Harbor. Werner was hit in the back by shrapnel during the infamous attack.

BRISTOL — U.S. Army soldier James Werner was hit in the back by a hunk of shrapnel as Japanese aircraft swarmed over Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

Werner, now 98, was on work detail the morning of the attack. He said he had been assigned to paint barracks that day when he saw two reconnaissance planes with no identification flying over Pearl Harbor at tree-top height.

“I saw the first plane, and I thought ‘that is not one of ours.’ Turned out, I was right,” Werner said. “The Japanese made it look like a civilian plane. When the second plane flew over, my gun battery started firing and busted my eardrums. By the time I realized they were enemy planes, smoke already was coming up from Pearl Harbor, which was about a mile away from where I was.”

Werner said he also began firing his own weapon at the enemy airplanes.

“My gun battery shot down two Japanese planes that day,” he said.

Werner was in charge of the communications section of the 64th Anti-Aircraft Regiment and 125 men served in his gun battery.

Werner had joined the Army Jan. 3, 1940, at the age of 18.

“They told me I had to have my parents sign me up even though I was turning 19 in March. It wasn’t a problem,” Werner said.

He went to recruit instruction, which is now known as basic training, and was assigned to a gun battery in Honolulu in February 1940. Werner was the youngest Army sergeant in his regiment.

“It was still peace time, and I served almost two years. I then went back to the states and signed up for pilot training, but they sent me to radio school instead because communicators were needed more at the time,” Werner said, shaking his head knowing now that assignment probably kept him from being killed.

He said he “bounced all over the United States” for training and once the war started, he spent four years in the South Pacific. He participated in the New Guinea campaign and also went to Australia to train soldiers on new radio equipment.

“That was kind of a hush-hush operation. The equipment guided in the planes onto the aircraft carriers,” Werner said.

He was discharged in January of 1946, noting he and other soldiers who survived Pearl Harbor, D-Day and other major battles of World War II were “mentally and emotionally done.”

“Back then, there were no tours of duty. Everyone served until the war was over,” Werner said.

He said he believes he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when he returned home, but no one really knew what it was at the time.

“I went a little nutty,” Werner said. “We all had to learn how to be civilians again and that is a hard thing to do. I was in the Army for six years, and I had a hard time finding my way without the regiment and discipline of the military. Eventually, I did.”