The December to Remember: Pearl Harbor radar men are reunited in Allentown

This is the 4th installment of articles regarding current events that are related to WWII or Pearl Harbor. Today’s article came from a Philadelphia local news paper called “The Morning Call”  Here is the wonderful article:

Army Signal Corps veterans (from left) Joe Lockard, Bob McKenney and Dick Schimmel meet on Nov. 1, 2011, at Phoebe Home in Allentown, where McKenney lives. The radar men served on Oahu, Hawaii, during the Pearl Harbor attack. (HARRY FISHER, THE MORNING CALL / November 7, 2011)

The three old Army buddies faced one another for the first time in 70 years, united by their experience in America’s darkest hour of the 20th century. One of them reflected on the time gone by since their early days in uniform.

“I’ll tell you how it is with me,” said 89-year-old Joe Lockard, a newsboy cap on his head and a cane by his side. “This is a little poem I wrote:

“I look in the mirror and what do I see? Some old man looking back at me.”

“Yeah!” 89-year-old Dick Schimmel broke in, instantly identifying with the rhyme.

“You’re a poet and don’t know it,” quipped Bob McKenney, 90 years old and in a wheelchair.

Boyish grins spread across their wrinkled faces. Their sense of camaraderie had not diminished since the day they saw smoke over Pearl Harbor.

Seven decades ago, the three called Pennsylvania their home. They had joined the Army during the Great Depression to seek adventure. Shipped out to Hawaii, they met while serving in a unit newly formed to use radar as a defense against hostile aircraft.


“I don’t think anybody realized the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor,” said Lockard, whose name would be etched in history for what he did that day. “They were looking for them to attack the Philippines, or somewhere like that, closer to Japan.”

“The week before,” Schimmel said in a 2007 interview, “we were on the alert. We didn’t know where the hell the Japanese navy was. All of a sudden, bingo, the alert’s off.”

The next day, Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked.

McKenney’s memory is poor now, but he has said that even the aftermath was scary.

“We were expecting a landing,” he said in a 1991 interview, “and if they did land it would be pretty tough because we were not in a state of readiness.”

Lockard and Schimmel visited McKenney at Phoebe Home in Allentown last month, a reunion arranged by The Morning Call to mark the 70th anniversary of the event that thrust America into World War II.

In their youth, on the eve of disaster, they belonged to the Signal Corps Aircraft Warning Service on Oahu. Pvts. Joseph Lockard and Robert McKenney worked at the Opana mobile radar station on the northern tip of the island. Opana had gotten a radar set Thanksgiving Day 1941. Its operators could look out over the Pacific from a height of more than 500 feet.

Pfc. Richard Schimmel was about 30 miles south at Fort Shafter, which lay east of Pearl Harbor and had an information center linking the five radar sites across the island. The 19-year-old from Allentown helped build the center and worked there as a plotter and switchboard operator.

Lockard, also 19, grew up in Williamsport and had been drawn to the service by a hometown soldier’s exotic tales of the Philippines. Heading there by ship in 1940, Lockard got fed up with peeling potatoes, duty he had as one of the few passengers who didn’t get seasick. So, when the ship docked at Oahu and Signal Corps officers came aboard recruiting volunteers for the radar unit — Signal Company, Aircraft Warning, Hawaii — he signed up.

McKenney, 20, came from Philadelphia and was fond of joking and horsing around. He earlier served in the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Merchant Marine, and had made a hobby of electronics, the reason he joined the Signal Corps.

The remote Opana site had no quarters, so the soldiers who manned it camped several miles away at Kawailoa. On Saturday, Dec. 6, they got a call to operate the radar set early the next morning.

“Joe Lockard and I were the only experienced so-called crew chiefs there,” McKenney said in a 1991 video interview with the National Park Service. “I tossed a coin to see who would draw that duty, to be there to operate from 4-7 a.m …. I tossed with Lockard and he lost, so he got the job.”

Lockard and Pvt. George Elliott rode a truck to Opana that Saturday afternoon. Elliott had been with the company only two weeks and didn’t know how to use the oscilloscope, but he could plot.

“We spent the night at the site and turned on the equipment and were on line and in contact with the information center at 4 a.m.,” Lockard said. “George was at the plotting table; I was the operator at the scope.

“After the exercise, we didn’t shut down the unit at 7 a.m. because we didn’t have any transportation back to Kawailoa. The truck hadn’t arrived. So I decided to give George some training.

“I started to put him in front of the scope and there it was — this huge echo on the screen. I had never seen any kind of response on the equipment that was so large.

“At first I thought there might have been some glitch with the equipment. So I checked everything I could and everything operated OK, so it had to be real. There had to be something out there.”

The blip was 136 miles out and closing fast. It was 7:02 a.m.

Elliott tried to call the information center but couldn’t raise anyone on the plotters line because the plotters had all gone to breakfast at 7. He used the administrative line to call the switchboard, and Pvt. Joseph McDonald answered. McDonald, from Archbald, Lackawanna County, near Scranton, and Lockard were friends.

“Joe told us that everyone had left the building,” Lockard said. “We asked him to look around and see if he could find anybody, and he did. He found a young Air Corps lieutenant, Kermit Tyler, and brought him to the phone.

“I talked to Kermit Tyler and tried to convey my excitement at the fact that we had never seen anything like this on radar, and that it obviously had to be planes. … I didn’t have any idea how many. I pushed it as far as I could, but you can only argue with an officer so long.

“He just said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ “

Tyler believed the blip was B-17 bombers due in from the mainland.

“We continued to plot it all the way in to within about 20 miles of our station, where we lost the echoes in the interference we had in the terrain [at 7:39 a.m.],” Lockard said. “Then we closed down the unit and shortly thereafter the truck came and we started down the highway to Kawailoa.”

Back at Fort Shafter, McDonald left the information center and entered the tent he shared with the man he had relieved from duty the evening before — Schimmel. Feeling uneasy, McDonald woke his buddy. It was about 7:45 a.m.

“Hey Shim, the Japs are coming,” he said.

“I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he started telling me about the information he got from Lockard about the radar,” Schimmel said. “We were sitting there talking for a while and all of a sudden we heard BOOM!

“Here we thought the Navy was having a sham battle. Where we were situated, on a high plateau, we could look over and see Pearl Harbor. We ran out of the tent. We’d see a plane dive, hear an explosion and see smoke. Somebody came and said they heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor was being attacked and it might be Japanese planes.”

Schimmel and McDonald got up on the mess hall roof for a better view. When antiaircraft guns opened up behind them, they ran back to their tent, got their .45s and gas masks and hurried to the information center to man the switchboard and plotting board.

At Kawailoa, McKenney and a few other radar men had put on their dress uniforms to attend Mass and were waiting for a ride when “hell broke loose,” McKenney said in 1991. “We threw a lot of stuff on the truck and went up to where Lockard was.”

The truck carrying Lockard and Elliott back to camp passed the one taking McKenney the opposite direction, to Opana.

“They were waving and shouting at us,” Lockard said, “but we couldn’t understand what they were saying. Along the way, we knew something was happening because we could see these huge billows of black smoke in the direction of the harbor.

“When we got to Kawailoa, they told us that we had been attacked. We knew immediately that what we had seen were those planes. [A lieutenant] was standing there, and we told him about it.

“Very quickly we went back up to Opana, and we stayed up there. … We now operated the radar around the clock. Two machine-gun positions were installed in defense of the radar and we continued to survey the ocean north of Oahu. We expected an invasion. None happened.”

After Pearl Harbor, Lockard, McKenney and Schimmel took separate paths.

Lockard was promoted to staff sergeant, awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and early in 1942 sent to Fort Monmouth, N.J., to attend Officer Candidate School. He was home long enough to marry the girl he rode on a seesaw with in a Williamsport park when they were both about 14.

“If you ever meet the right girl,” he wrote to McKenney, “don’t hesitate or think about it — you might lose her.”

As a second lieutenant, Lockard went to advanced radar school in Florida and then to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. After the war, he worked for a railroad and then in the electronics industry, ultimately securing 40 patents. He testified in Pearl Harbor inquiries and was portrayed in the 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

He lives in Lower Paxton Township, Dauphin County, near Harrisburg, and has two sons and a daughter. His wife, Pauline, died in 2009.

McKenney went on to radar duty in the South Pacific, then returned to the States to become an officer. He spent the rest of the war at the Signal Corps Inspection Agency in Philadelphia, was discharged as a first lieutenant and served in the National Guard, retiring as a colonel.

He graduated from what is now Delaware Valley College and worked for Philadelphia Electric Co. in Bucks County. In 1969, he moved from Central Bucks to Lynn Township, where he owned and ran the landmark Stines Corner Hotel for 25 years with his wife, Aileen, and their seven children. Aileen, a leader in the Lehigh Valley’s tourism industry, died in 1991.

Schimmel left Oahu to spend six months on Canton Island, near American Samoa, and returned to Hawaii. He became a staff sergeant and altogether spent 41/2 years overseas.

Back home in Allentown, he worked as a Sears appliance salesman. He has two sons. His wife, Yolanda, died last year.

Tyler, the lieutenant at the Fort Shafter information center, was not disciplined for disregarding Lockard’s report. But his role that day dogged him until his death last year at age 96.

“I wake up nights sometimes and think about it,” Tyler told the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., in 2007. “But I don’t feel guilty. I did all I could that morning.”

Elliott, Lockard’s partner at Opana, died in 2003.

McDonald died in 1994. He was long troubled that he hadn’t done more when the radar warning came in, said Schimmel, who stayed in touch with him. “He used to call me up a lot of times and say, ‘I should have gone over their heads.’ I told him he couldn’t do that.”

Lockard and Schimmel saw each other in June at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s World War II Weekend near Reading. Lockard and McKenney traveled together to Hawaii in 1991 for the Pearl Harbor 50th anniversary. Schimmel was also there, but the three didn’t link up.

Asked if anything would have been different if the military authorities had heeded the radar warning, Schimmel said: “If [our] airplanes could have been sent up, we would have had more power in the air. … We still would have been attacked, and we would have been outnumbered, but I think we would have had a much better fight, and we would have saved a lot of ships.”

McKenney has said the outcome might have been different if the brass had fully embraced radar.

“There should have been serious attention from a level higher than ours into what the purpose of the equipment was. The essentials were there, [but] there was no commitment. It was just haphazard.”

According to Lockard, the damage the Japanese did might have been reduced.

“There’s no way you can fire up a battleship and get it out of the harbor in that short a time. But there would be the possibility of having more intense antiaircraft artillery firing at these attacking planes, which may have kept them farther away from the ships, [resulting in] less damage.”

During their afternoon together in Allentown, the three men remembered former comrades with names like Winterbottom, Upson, Hilton, Shoemaker. They spoke of places they had known on Oahu — Koko Head, Haleiwa, the Kolekole Pass, Schofield Barracks. They laughed about the enlisted man’s lot — pay that was so meager they couldn’t afford a taxi to Honolulu.

Lockard finished reciting his poem to Schimmel and McKenney.

Where is the youth that once was mine?

Deep on the inside lost in time.

Will I see him as before?

Quoth the mirror: Nevermore.

david.venditta@mcall.com

610-770-3784

Copyright © 2011, The Morning Call

I hope you enjoyed reading a first account of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I am so thankful that these gentlemen were able to do this interview as it is the only way that we can secure the actual facts from this sad event in history. Our history is slowly dying everyday. Every day we have veterans passing away and details and information that they can provide goes with them. This is why we need to ask and interview any veteran that is willing to speak about their tour of duty. Help preserve our national history and talk to a vet.

Thanks for reading,

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Published in: on December 4, 2011 at 1:50 AM  Comments (1)  
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