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Dec. 7, 1941:One ship at Pearl Harbor

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December 09, 2009 - Atlas Twp.-Tom Nothhelfer, Jr. remembers the day he found the small metal box in the attic of his parents' township home.

Following the deaths of Nothhelfer's parents, Tom, Sr. in 1971 and Helen in 1980, the container was discovered. Inside the dust covered box were items his father had saved from his service in the Navy between 1939 and 1948— a nine year stint that encompassed WWII action in both Europe and the South Pacific. Inside the box were numerous letters home to his then girlfriend (and later wife) Helen, several Navy patches and certification of having crossed the Equator. Also among the historical items was a small diary recording ports, cities and countries, and information about the Navy ship on which Tom, Sr. was a crew member on.

"Dad never said much about the war or what happened during his experiences," said Tom Jr. "He was a quiet guy—we found his diary, a log he kept of all the places he traveled to—the detail was perfect."

Born in 1919 in Detroit, Tom Sr. enlisted in the Navy on March 1, 1939 prior to the start of WWII. According to records, Tom, Sr. boarded the 496-foot submarine tender USS Pelias on the east coast on Sept. 21, 1941 and sailed via the Panama Canal to San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. On Nov. 15, 1941, Tom, Sr., serving as a chief water tender responsible for keeping water in the boiler which powered the ship, arrived in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to work on the US Submarine Sixth Squadron.

"He spoke very little about Pearl Harbor," said Tom, Jr. "Very little information came out of him regarding his time there. When he did speak about Pearl it was more off the cuff—just a few comments."

"On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Dad was down below deck making coffee when the attack started," said Tom, Jr. "They sounded General Quarters and he ran up on deck. Dad recalled the Pelias captain shooting at the Japanese airplanes with his pistol."

The Japanese Navy aircraft carrier force covertly crossed the Pacific with an aerial strike force attacking the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Sunday morning just before 8 a.m. Within a short time, five of eight battleships at Pearl Harbor were sunk or sinking, with the rest damaged. Several other ships and most Hawaii-based combat planes were also knocked out, and more than 2,400 Americans were dead, according to reports.

According to declassified information from William Wakefield, the ship's commander on the morning of Dec. 7, the USS Perlias went to General Quarters and opened fire with anti-aircraft battery. Approximately 200 rounds of 3" and 5,000 rounds of 50 caliber ammunition were expended. The greater part of this defense action was against torpedo planes and dive bombers attacking the battleships. The Pelias was lying at the Submarine Base dock: a good position for action against this particular phase of the attack. One (Japanese) torpedo plane was shot down and fell in the water just off the finger piers of the submarine base before launching its attack. Also, another plane believed to be a torpedo plane was turned away from its objective under the fire of this and other ships, and was last seen flying low in a southerly direction over the officer's club, and streaming smoke.

"Dad told us it was very nasty for a long time after the attack, the water was on fire and he spoke of the stench," said Tom, Jr. "He spoke of bodies in the water and the cleanup that followed. In the years that followed, Dad would make us kids shut off the television if it was a war movie and they sounded General Quarters."

Tom, Sr. stayed in Pearl Harbor until May 21, 1942 and sailed back to San Francisco. He stayed on the Pelias and was redeployed to Australia until May 17, 1943 when he was moved to the USS Heron. Later he sailed back east to Europe and participated in several campaigns in southern France. He married Helen (Keho), a Flint resident, in 1947. He was discharged from the Navy in March 1948 as a Chief Water Tender First Class.

Tom and Helen had four children, Cate, Susan, Tom, Jr. and Joe. The family moved to Atlas Township in 1969.

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