PALESTINE — The Hawaiian sky was clear, the air and sea were warm, and the only thing preying on 18-year-old Victor Lively's mind was his usual routine of morning duties aboard Battleship USS Nevada.
Colorful images from the night before still danced in his memory, when he had gone ashore from his port at Pearl Harbor into Honolulu to buy Christmas gifts for his family. He took a taxi into what he described as a “quaint town — nothing like it is today,” to browse the local shops and eateries. Several of Lively's shipmates, including members of the the US Navy Unit Band 22 aboard neighboring battleship USS Arizona, also went ashore that night to fill the air with music.
Today, a fresh day filled with good humor and expectation, was the peaceful Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941. Lively was looking forward to the church service on deck, due to start in about an hour.
“I'd been up probably an hour and a half,” the Slocum High School graduate said. “When you're young like that, you have to mess cook for a while. My job was to go down to the galley, bring the food up, set the tables up and feed those guys.”
But the sermon would never be spoken, the gifts would never arrive and a certain harmony of percussion and wind would never be heard again. It was the day Japanese aerial bombers rained down fire on a largely defenseless U.S. Navy fleet, catapulting the United States into World War II.
Lively, Gunner's Mate First Class, casually scurried across the deck of the USS Nevada, his arms heavy with buckets of dish water from that morning's mess hall. He kneeled over the edge of the modernized ship, oak boards strong and sturdy beneath his feet, and tilted the bucket into the sea — right as his eyes rose to meet a questionable sight.
“I saw a Jap plane fly by and thought, 'What is that?' And I went back in and the chief gunner said, 'The Japs are here! Man your stations! Man your stations!'”
Lively sprang into action with fellow shipmates, just as the bombs began to drop.
“We all went to our stations,” Lively said. “I'd been on the ship for a year, and I'd been assigned to the gun department.” But he'd never seen a battle, not before that day.
Lively pointed to an old photo of the foremast on the USS Nevada, standing tall above the deck.
“My battle station was on the topside.”
Lively recalled feeling helpless.
“(We) just took it,” he said. “All the ammunition was locked up because it was peace time. It was like you had a burglar coming, but your gun wasn't loaded and you couldn’t find it.”
On top of this, the guns Lively and his team were stationed to operate were broadside guns, designed to shoot horizontally at other ships — not airplanes. This proved incredibly frustrating, since the airplanes “were as close as that house,” Lively said, pointing to his Palestine neighbor's yard about 50 feet away.
“If I'd a had a .22 I could have killed a lot of Jap fliers,” he said. “If we'd had 30 minutes notice, or an hour, we could have shot down a lot of Japs, but we didn't have any.”
At one point, Lively recalls seeing neighboring battleship USS Arizona erupt in flames. The ship was hit four times by Japanese bombers and eventually sank, accumulating over half of the day's total casualties.
“(The Japanese) dropped a bomb right down on the stack, and I saw it when it blew up — boom-boom-boom!” Lively said, using his hands to replicate levels of explosions.
Among the 1,177 crewmen killed on the Arizona were all 21 members of the band that had ventured ashore the night before. Most of its members were on deck that morning preparing to play music for the daily flag raising ceremony.
“They had the best band in the Navy,” Lively recalled.
At no other time in American history has an entire military band died in action.
Halfway through the battle, Lively decided to climb down from his perch at the foremast, “about 75 feet down,” he said.
“Just as I opened the hatch, a big bomb hit just below me on the captain's cabin. It missed where I was — probably by 10 feet — and hit down below. So I got back up in there,” he said.
Others weren't as fortunate.
“Several guys in my division and their captain got killed,” Lively said, pointing to a photo of the area where the bomb had exploded. “He and all of his crew got killed.”
But Lively doesn't remember feeling afraid. In fact, he doesn’t remember feeling much of anything; it was all just “like a bad dream,” he said. Eventually, he was able to make it down to a lower deck and began tearing tourniquets for wounded soldiers, while the Japanese continued to fire.
“I thought my life was over is what I thought. No way you could get out of there. No way you could survive that.”
But survive Lively did. Out of the seven naval ships at port that day, the USS Nevada was the only one not tied to another ship, making way for a possible escape.
“We had to chop the mooring lines, and we took off,” Lively said.
But the slowly moving Nevada became an attractive target for Japanese dive bombers, which fired on her repeatedly, wreaking havoc on the ship.
“We got word to pull it over on a sandbar, and everything down below was all underwater,” Lively said.
As the crew worked franticly to plug leaks and put out fires, water traveled throughout the ship, effectively bringing it to rest on the shallow sandbar just south of Ford Island. At the end of the day, 50 men from Lively's ship were killed during the Pearl Harbor raid.
“We got word that the Japs were landing on Hawaii, but that was a false report, thank goodness,” Lively said.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at 7:55 a.m., Americans' kitchen clocks were just wrapping up the noon hour in Washington, D.C. As people returned home from church and set the table for Sunday roast, newspaper reporters collected details of the sudden tempest brewing in the Pacific. Less than 24 hours later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech that would live on in infamy, declaring war on Japan.
Lively went on to serve his country aboard USS Nevada following the raid on Pearl Harbor. After the ship was repaired and revamped with new artillery and a new crew in Bremerton, Wash., the group set sail for the Aleutian Islands and helped drive a small contingent of Japanese troops from Attu Island.
“Then we got word to go to a big battle called 'Normandy,'” Lively said. “We didn't know what that was — well we didn't know until we got over there.”
Lively, on the 40mm squad, remembers “shelling the shoreline” while providing support to the Allied forces on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The Nevada was part of the Allied naval fleet to begin bombarding the Germans at Normandy during the pre-dawn hours before the first troops began landing.
“I never saw so many planes coming from England — just all day long, loaded with troops, just kept coming, kept coming, kept coming,” he said. “The sky was almost black with airplanes.”
Following Normandy, Lively remembers being stationed in the Philippines, when “the word came over that a super-bomb had been dropped on Japan,” Lively said. “We could hear all the guys just jumping up and down and raising cane and breaking out, and the band started playing.”
After the war’s conclusion, the USS Nevada’s crew was transferred to other ships, and Lively finished out his time on a smaller vessel before returning to civilian life in Texas.
He and his wife, Merle, settled first in Houston and then in Palestine where Lively worked for the Power and Light Company and his wife worked for Missouri Pacific Railroad in the Redlands Building. He later moved to Fort Worth to learn the heating and air conditioning trade, and then back to Houston to serve as supervisor for the air conditioning and refrigeration department at the VA hospital, where he worked for the next 25 years.
After retiring, he moved back to Palestine and lives near his son and daughter-in-law, Jeff and Denise Lively, a fifth-grade teacher at Slocum.
Today, Lively remains one of an estimated 1,000 Pearl Harbor survivors still living. Most are in their nineties, as Lively, who is 92.
When asked what he thinks about surviving the attack and subsequent battles of WWII, he said, “I've often wondered...” his voice trailing off. “Of course, I don't dwell on it. I put it out of my mind... I don’t dream about it; I don’t think about it unless somebody asks me.”