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Veteran recalls how Pearl Harbor changed his life

By BY DIANNA WRAY - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Dec. 6, 2012 at 6:06 a.m.
Updated Dec. 7, 2012 at 6:07 a.m.

Eighty-eight-year-old Claud Hooker talks about the invasion landing on Leyte Island in 1944.

To read more

Claud Hooker's book, "Away all Boats" is slated to be published this month.

INDIANOLA - Why would someone bomb an island?

It was Dec. 7, 1941, and 17-year-old Claud Hooker stood in a diner, listening to the owner's small radio broadcast the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

In Hawaii, the bombs had already dropped and the startled victims of the attack were working to make sense and care for the wounded in the aftermath of the day Japanese planes zoomed overhead and brought the war that had been raging in Europe to their doorstep.

In the White House the following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was pronouncing Dec. 7, "a date which will live in infamy," spitting out the last word with sharp emphasis as his message went out on the radio waves.

In Cisco, Hooker and a friend listened to the news that America had been attacked, knowing it was important, but without a clue what it really meant.

"You boys come listen to this," the owner called to them as they walked in. "You'll be in the Army fighting pretty soon because the Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor."

Now, 71 years later, 88-year-old Hooker laughed at his confusion.

"I don't think I even knew where Pearl Harbor was," he said.

That was the beginning of his war, though he didn't know it.

He'd be in the Army soon, the owner had said. Hooker started thinking about enlisting. He was only 17, so his father had to sign the forms, and he persuaded his dad to do it, pointing out that he had a better chance of making it through the war if he joined the Navy. He'd be safe there, he assured his parents. His father signed the forms while his mother cried.

He was enlisted by the end of the month. By February, Hooker was on a train that took him from Abilene to Dallas to San Diego.

"I was a country boy, all eyes," Hooker said.

He'd never seen the ocean, but he soon found himself on the USS Alcyone, a cargo ship converted to conduct some of the first amphibious landings.

Hooker had worked in a garage before signing up for the service, and his mechanical expertise got him assigned as an engineer on an amphibious craft, the boats charged with taking troops from the ships to shore. It had never been done before, Hooker said. The waters were rough, and the wind whipped the waves into a froth.

Now, sitting in his snug house on the coast of Indianola, Hooker still remembers how fear swept through him as he sat in the craft as he waited for the start of the invasion of Sicily.

"That's when I found out there was a God," Hooker said, shaking his head. "In Sicily, I was so scared I couldn't breathe."

From Sicily, they were sent through the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor.

As the USS Alcyone pulled into the harbor, Hooker could hardly believe the stories he'd heard of how 353 Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes had attacked in two waves. They damaged all eight of the U.S. Navy battleships, sinking four. The Japanese had attacked in the morning, killing 2,402 Americans and injuring 1,282.

Many of the vessels that had been damaged were salvaged by the Navy, but the wreckage of USS Arizona was still submerged in the turquoise water when Hooker's ship came to port.

The USS Alcyone entered the Pacific Theater of the war.

His first friend died in the invasion of the Makin Islands. There were more after that - so many the names are now lost to him.

In Saipan, the Japanese fought ferociously. His amphibious craft got pinned down for five hours as the Japanese worked to keep them from taking the island.

After the battle, he stood at the front of the craft, guiding it through waters choked with the mangled bodies of the dead.

That was when it began, the first signs of what was then known as "battle fatigue" and is now called post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You started losing your nerve. You started shaking," Hooker said.

He had seen so much. On one of his leaves home, his father had looked at the boy, the baby of the family, and asked him to come outside and see something on the farm. His father was a peanut farmer with a fourth-grade education, but he was a smart man and saw that his son wasn't telling the whole story in front of his mother.

They sat out there and talked, taking slugs of whiskey, while Hooker told what he'd really seen and lived through.

The men they brought to shore in the amphibious landing craft only had to make that trip once, but Hooker and the other sailors were piloting those boats through hostile waters over and over. The strain began to show.

After the invasion of the Philippines, Hooker went to the sick bay and found the medical officer.

"You can send me back out if you want to, but I'm not going to guarantee I can do the job," he told the officer. "I'm all apart."

He was sent to the United States to recuperate, but then through a filing error, he was assigned to another combat ship, still a wreck. He was 21 when they invaded Okinawa. Even when the war ended in Europe, it looked like the Japanese would never surrender.

Home on leave again, Hooker knew he'd probably be going back into combat to invade Japan.

He was at a girlfriend's house in Cisco when they heard the neighbors screaming and yelling and clapping, calling that the war was over. They'd dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The atomic bomb would be dropped on Nagasaki three days later, and by Aug. 15, 1945, Japan would surrender.

Hooker had never heard of an atomic bomb, but he believed what his neighbors were telling him and went out and bought a case of beer to celebrate.

Once he was discharged from the service, he came back to Texas and started working in a garage. He'd made it through the war, but he wasn't the same, becoming a man who drank too much as he tried to blot out the memories that no one wanted to talk about.

Then he met Madalyn. Settling in for supper at his sister-in-law's mother's house, Hooker saw a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl seated at the table. She was beautiful, with a degree from the University of Texas and a mind that didn't miss a beat.

They went on a couple of dates, but she told him she wouldn't be seeing him again.

"You drink too much," she said. Hooker shrugged it off defensively and stopped calling.

Then he invited her to come swimming and when he saw Madalyn in her yellow swimsuit, he knew what he'd have to do.

"What if I stopped drinking at all?" he asked her.

They married soon after, a decision that turned his life around.

The drinking stopped - he kept his word - but one morning, he woke on the floor next to their bed, with his hands around his new wife's throat. She'd kicked him smartly to wake him. Throughout his struggles, she knew how to handle him.

"She put up with me and got me through it," he said.

They were married for 62 years. They moved from Austin to the coast after Madalyn was diagnosed with cancer. Since her death, Hooker has put most of her pictures away, but his eyes still soften when he finds one of her, golden hair curled smartly, grinning for the camera, young and sure, just as she was when he met her.

She helped him learn to cope, but he has fought with the effects of the war all his life and is fighting it still. For Hooker, the story that began Dec. 7, 1941, has not ended yet.

He carries it with him.

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