At 95, Ed Harriman’s memory is keen, especially regarding the day Japan bombed the U.S. into World War II. The transplanted upstate New Yorker, now living in DeBary, will never forget what happened three years to the day after Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1944.
Harriman had the distinction of being aboard the USS Ward, the destroyer that fired the first American shot of the attack on Pearl Harbor, sinking an enemy miniature submarine and commencing a long war in the Pacific/Asian Theater.
“That was my first ship,” Harriman said.
Fresh out of high school, Harriman had enlisted in the Navy in 1940. As the U.S. was coming out of the Depression, there were war and rumors of war, and many young men were ready and eager to assist their country.
“Back in those days, everybody couldn’t wait to get in,” Harriman recalled.
After boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago, Harriman trained to be a radio operator, using Morse code and voice communications systems. He was soon assigned to the Ward, then based at Pearl Harbor.
The Ward’s first-blood action played out about dawn, Dec. 7, 1941, as the Ward patrolled an area outside the entrance to the harbor, when crew members spotted what looked like a submarine trailing another U.S. Navy ship steaming into Pearl Harbor.
“There was another ship on patrol. They spotted the submarine,” Harriman said.
The submarine was within range of the Ward’s deck guns, and the captain ordered gunners to fire upon the unidentified vessel.
“The first shot missed, but the second, fired from the No. 3 gun, scored a hit on the sub’s conning tower,” Harriman said.
The enemy sub soon vanished beneath the waves.
As one of the ship’s radio operators, Harriman sent the Navy’s Hawaii command center headquarters a message about the Ward’s contact with the enemy.
“They knew that there was something up. We sent it by code. The officer on duty did not do anything,” Harriman said.
That inaction ashore proved to be costly, as, unbeknown to Harriman and the people on Oahu, waves of Japanese warplanes were approaching the island.
The Ward’s sinking of the submarine likely prevented the containment of the U.S. Pacific Fleet within the harbor for a prolonged period.
If the Japanese minisub had gotten into the harbor and sunk a ship at the entrance, where they wanted to sink it, they would have blocked the harbor, Harriman said.
Following the sinking of the submarine, the Ward continued its search for more enemy activity, as Japanese torpedo bombers and fighters flew toward their targets. The war was coming — even at the doorstep.
When the full force and fury of the massive air raid became evident, Harriman remembers, the men aboard the Ward could only hear the sounds of the attack, not daring to venture into Pearl Harbor for fear their ship could be damaged or sunk.
“There was nothing we could do but stay on patrol. You could hear the planes, but we were far out, and we were just helpless. It was like we were just sitting out there, and there was nothing we could do,” he said.
The Ward remained on patrol outside the harbor entrance, searching for other enemy activity on or beneath the surface of the water.
As 1941 gave way to 1942, the Ward took on a new mission: joining the island-by-island campaigns to drive Japan back to its home islands. One of the ship’s first assignments in this new round of action was Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands.
“We would put Marine raiders ashore and then go and pick them up. They didn’t stay long,” Harriman said. “We shot down planes.”
In most of the amphibious operations, Harriman said, the Ward usually did not come under hostile fire. That changed as the war drew closer to Japan itself.
On Dec. 7, 1944, three years to the day after Pearl Harbor, the Ward was sunk in the Philippine Sea.
“We had already made the landing, and we picked up the Marine raiders. We were sunk by a kamikaze,” Harriman said. “The reason I know is because I was in the radio shack.”
He said the Japanese suicide planes were hard to stop. The one that sunk the Ward struck amidships on the starboard side.
When it became clear the doomed vessel could not be saved or towed for repairs, the crew abandoned the Ward. Another destroyer close by, the USS O’Brien, moved to pick up the sailors swimming away from the burning Ward.
The irony of the loss of the Ward three years to the day after the Pearl Harbor attack was compounded by the presence of the O’Brien’s captain, Lt. Cmdr. William Outerbridge — the same officer who had been the captain of the Ward when it engaged the enemy minisub before the air raid.
Not only that, but it was also Outerbridge who ordered the O’Brien to fire upon the Ward to sink it, lest the vessel fall into enemy hands.
“All of the crew from the Ward were sent back to the States for 30 days of survivors’ leave,” Harriman said.
When he returned to duty, Harriman was assigned to a weather ship that had no name, “only a number.” That unnamed vessel was also in the Western Pacific.
“They were sending balloons up,” he said. “I later found out they were sending up the balloons to check the airflows. They were getting ready to drop the atomic bombs.”
After the atomic bombs forced Japan to surrender, Harriman was released from the Navy. He wasn’t among those who went ashore in Japan to take part in the occupation of the defeated nation.
“I never made it,” he said.
“I couldn’t wait to get into the Navy, and I couldn’t wait to get out,” Radioman 2nd Class Harriman said.
Returning to civilian life, Harriman became an insurance agent.
“I was going to go to college and become a teacher of physical education, but I got married instead,” he said.
Harriman and his first wife, who died in 2010, had a son and a daughter. From those offspring came three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Harriman moved from New York to Florida in 1988. He and former shipmates of the Ward no longer gather for reunions.
“We gave it up. We took the money and gave it to Navy Relief. We are getting older, and it is hard to travel,” he said.
He’s not sure how many of the men with whom he served are still alive.
Harriman is an active member of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8093 in DeBary, and a longtime member of the organization.
“I first joined in 1943 when I was at Pearl Harbor. Seventy-five years I have been a member of the VFW. I’m waiting to get my 75-year patch,” he said, referring to the rare insignia to be sewn onto his cap.
As a stalwart supporter and one of the post’s few remaining World War II veterans, Harriman lamented the group is not planning any sort of Pearl Harbor Day program or observance.