'It's scary to have the enemy on you' Local veteran shares experience during Pearl Harbor attack

Thomas Hill became a man of the U.S. Navy at just 16-years-old.

Posted: Nov 28, 2017 11:20 PM

CLAY COUNTY, Ind. (WTHI) - Thomas Hill became a man of the U.S. Navy at just 16-years-old.

"I was in the Navy 5 years, 8 months and 4 days," he said, "I was a quartermaster, navigation on a bridge and I helped correct the charts and learned to steer the ship."

He was only 18 on December 7, 1941. That's the day when the Japanese began their suprise attack on the naval base in Hawaii at 7:55 that morning.

Hill was aboard the U.S.S. Sacramento, a gunboat, that was tied up to the dock of the mainland. 

Hill was eating breakfast when the bell sounded announcing they take their battle stations. Moments later, he realized the reality of the attacks underway.

Never trained on how to load a rifle, Hill learned fast. Quickly he joined his fellow servicemen at his station and began firing at Japanese Torpedo Planes, hearing sounds of gunfire and explosions near and far. 

Meanwhile, rescue boats and ships were running the water, helping survivors and picking up bodies. Hill did not see any of the dead or injured bodies as the U.S.S. Sacramento was at a far distance from Battleship Row.

The U.S.S. Arizona took direct hits from Japanese planes, catching fire and ultimately sinking. 

Hill's boat, the U.S.S. Sacramento, was credited in the downing of two Japanese planes during the attack. 

"It's scary to have the enemy on you," he said.

Many lives were lost on that day. At 94-years-old, some memories of that day and after have faded for Hill, but the impact it left behind is still there. 

"It would be nice if you could see some of the fellows that were on the ship with you, you know?" he said.

Back in the midwest part of the United States, many were going through a different battle.

"I could still remember going to the auditorium where they told us everything, what was going on," said Viola Hill, "Some students had brothers in there, people crying."

Viola was only a freshman in high school during the Pearl Harbor attack. The transition into World War II, she says, would last through her remaining high school years.

"Rationing, people getting killed, it was just a whole 4 years of a story that's hard to believe," she said, "When we were in Home Ec and Sewing, you couldn't buy the materials you'd like to make it out of because the colors, the blues, the greens, the browns, that all went to the service to make their clothes and stuff. So you had to readjust to everything."

During that time, Viola says they weren't able to talk or ask questions about the war once servicemen returned home. 

"You would hear these things, they would publish 'Loose lips sink ships'," she said, "We were told when they want to talk about something okay, but don't ask them. Then they came back and they were looking at us thinking why aren't they asking us what we did or how we felt? But we were told just the opposite, they didn't realize it, but they did want to talk about what they did and where they were, but it just didn't work that way."

A LOVE STORY

It was after the war in the Fall of 1945 when Hill and Viola would cross paths. 

"The war was over in August, and I think he stayed home in Indianapolis for about a year," she said, "Then he came to Chicago to go to school."

In Chicago, Hill was staying with Viola's cousin, who was renting out rooms in a house to servicemen who were going back to school. Shortly after, her cousin set her up to meet Hill.

"That first night, a Friday night, he talked a little, he was getting ready to get on the bus to go back home to Indianapolis for the weekend," she said, "Well, he talked and he finally did leave, went down to the bus station and called again, talked some more. He never got home, he missed the bus and he never got home until about 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning."

Two months later, Viola and Thomas Hill would be engaged. They would marry a month later and still remain married 70 years later.

Beforehand, Viola had no idea her future husband would be a part of American history. A unique love story, but it's one that also comes with sincere gratitude for not just her partner in life, but to all the servicemen and women who played a role in that day and after. 

"Going into service they probably didn't realize what they were getting themselves in to," she said, "but what they did get in to, we really appreciated all of that."

Viola and Thomas Hill are currently residents at an assisted living facility in Brazil, Indiana.

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