On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Joe Chilcoat was manning the air traffic control tower at Hickam Field when the Japanese military strafed and bombed the base.
Among the more than 2,400 Americans killed and 1,104 wounded during the attack on Pearl Harbor, 121 of those killed and 274 of those wounded were stationed at Hickam Field, while another 37 went missing, according to the National Parks Service.
But because the Japanese were using the air traffic control tower as a point of reference, Chilcoat survived, his son Larry Chilcoat, of Rockport, said.
In the midst of the chaos, Joe Chilcoat maintained his station. Using his binoculars, he directed some aircraft away from the base and sought to rally others to respond to the attack, his son said.
“He saw it all,” the younger Chilcoat said of his father. “It affected him for the rest of his life.”
Joe Chilcoat was among the charter members of the first chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in Texas. For years, a group of as many as 15 to 18 men who were stationed at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack would gather at local restaurants like Hungry Jacks, the Corral and Bayside Seafood to share their memories of the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt described as “a date which will live in infamy.”
With the number of survivors dwindling — Chilcoat said he knows of several Pearl Harbor survivors in Corpus Christi, but none of those who attended the meetings in Victoria remain — the group last met in 2019. But their family members and loved ones are carrying their stories onward.
In Sue Lindsey’s Victoria home, she still has a framed copy of a cover of Life magazine featuring a photograph of her late husband, Gary Lindsey. In the photograph, he has a helmet on his head and a cigarette between his teeth, and is staring determinedly into the distance.
Lindsey, 92, attended the survivors’ meetings for years to tell the story of her husband, who served for eight years in the Navy and was stationed at Pearl Harbor when the bombing began 80 years ago.
“When he saw the red dots, he knew that it was war,” Lindsey said, referring to the Japanese insignia painted on the sides of the Zero fighters and Val dive-bombers that attacked America’s Pacific Fleet.
Though it was difficult for him to talk about, her husband shared his story with many students during his 30-year career as an art teacher in Victoria, most of which was spent at Howell Middle School, Lindsey said. Children would even stop by the couple’s home after school to hear his story.
His goal was to impart the seriousness of war to the younger generation in Victoria, she said.
“It was real,” Lindsey said. “It wasn’t a play thing.”
In the years after the local chapter of the Survivors Association was founded, Chilcoat’s father shared his experiences with fellow survivors across Texas and participated in the Veterans Day parade in Victoria.
The annual luncheon on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor was typically an emotional affair, Chilcoat said.
“It was pretty tearful for these guys,” he said. “They saw the people dying around them, the chaos. They were not prepared for this attack, and it was pretty obvious that Sunday morning people were on liberty — they were at church or even at their bunks. They had no idea.”
In sharing their stories, the survivors hoped to “keep America alert” and prevent their country from falling prey to future attacks, Chilcoat said.
“These guys came together, not to share war stories, but to pass on the (message) to the people that this can not be forgotten,” he said. “It was quite a sight to see them coming in, in their wheelchairs, on their walkers, and just to be a part of sharing their story.”