WWII vet recalls sudden bedlam of Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

Frank Regina, a North Braddock boy who had joined the Navy the year before at age 17, was just finishing breakfast a few minutes before 8 a.m. aboard the USS Utah, an old battleship moored off Ford Island.

It was a sleepy Sunday morning.

Then hell broke loose.

Waves of planes bearing the symbol of the rising sun roared overhead, dropping bombs and torpedoes. The first attack on America since the War of 1812 had begun.

"Nobody knew who they were at first," said Mr. Regina, a machinist on the Utah. "Everybody said they were Russians."

Soon the truth became obvious: The planes were Japanese and the U.S. was at war.

"We were the first ship hit," Mr. Regina said. "I could see the Japanese pilots as they flew by."

Within minutes, the Utah capsized, the victim of two torpedoes. As the ship rolled to port, men scrambled over the sides, where they were strafed by Japanese planes.

Mr. Regina jumped from the starboard side and swam to Ford Island, where a plane opened fire on him.

"I was running when they shot at me," he said. "I could see the bullets hitting the ground."

He made it to safety. He was among the 461 Utah crew members who survived.

But others were trapped inside the ship. A few were saved by rescuers who cut through the upturned hull with a torch, but others were entombed in the wreck and remain there to this day.

The official death toll stood at 58 and the Utah became one of the first Pacific war graves.

Mr. Regina, 90, who lives at Beatty Pointe Village, a UPMC independent living facility in Monroeville, has since returned to Hawaii three times. The memorial for his ship, dedicated in 1972, is off-limits to tourists, but he was able to see it.

"We got special permission. They took us over in a boat to Ford Island. I saw the ship rusting away," Mr. Regina recalled. "I went off by my side. I was thinking of all those men, of what they went through. It got me thinking how lucky I was."

To many Americans, Pearl Harbor is a history-book event, as distant as the Civil War. A sizable proportion of today's youth, surveys have shown, don't even know who fought in World War II.

But to Mr. Regina and the other dwindling survivors of "the date which will live in infamy," Dec. 7 is a powerful memory, as are the hard years that followed.

Mr. Regina went on to serve aboard the USS St. Louis, a cruiser that saw heavy action in the Pacific, and earned 11 battle stars as the U.S. slowly pushed the Japanese back to their home islands and then broke their backs with the atom bomb.

Mr. Regina grew up in North Braddock, one of seven siblings, and quit high school to enlist. The war in Europe was raging in 1940, but it seemed far away.

"I didn't think much of it," Mr. Regina said. "I wanted to see the world."

After training in Rhode Island and Chicago, where he attended motor school run by the Ford Motor Co., he ended up on the Utah, a World War I-era retired battlewagon used as a target ship for bomber pilots.

On Dec. 7, the 521-foot Utah was anchored at Ford Island in a berth normally used by the USS Lexington, an aircraft carrier. It was good luck for the Lexington and the other carriers not to be in port that day. The war could have turned out much differently if the Japanese had sunk the carrier fleet instead of the battleships, many of which were already obsolete.

But it was bad luck for the Utah. She began rolling within 10 minutes of being struck by the torpedoes. The order came to abandon ship and most of the crew jumped overboard.

One who didn't was chief watertender Peter Tomich, who went below to shut down the boilers. Had the rising water reached them, they would have exploded. He died in the effort and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Mr. Regina made it to Ford Island, where Army nurses gave him dry clothes. He then boarded the USS Medusa, a repair ship, and took in the full scope of the devastation.

"They hit us pretty good," he said in a video recorded by UPMC last month. "I could see what happened to the ship, I could see how the Arizona was going up in flames. Everything was a mess. Nothing was moving. The harbor was blocked off. Lot of smoke."

The next day he boarded the St. Louis, which seemed like a charmed ship.

During the attack, the cruiser had shot down three Japanese torpedo bombers and then got underway, heading for the South Channel. She was the only major ship to get moving that day and earned her nickname, "Lucky Lou," by surviving several harrowing incidents. A Japanese plane strafed her, but no one was hurt. Two torpedoes that were fired at her from a midget submarine exploded on a shoal instead.

The cruiser moved out to sea in an unsuccessful hunt for the Japanese fleet.

In the coming months, the St. Louis would engage the Japanese Navy many times. After escort duty and a mission to Alaska in support of the Aleutian campaign, her luck continued in July 1943, when a dud torpedo hit her amidships during the Battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands.

It damaged some steel plating but hurt no one.

During the same battle, her sister ship, USS Helena, suffered a hit in the same place by a torpedo that exploded. She sank in minutes.

The St. Louis suffered her first real damage during the battle of Kolombangara about a week later.

"A torpedo blew off our bow," said Mr. Regina, who heard the impact from his battle station in damage control on the first deck. "I guess we were going about 32 knots [top speed, about 38 mph]. We suddenly slowed to a couple of knots. I thought we were going straight down."

Again, no one was hurt, adding further to the "Lucky Lou" tag. The damage was repaired at Mare Island near San Francisco and the ship returned to action.

Mr. Regina remembered his ship patrolling the "Slot" in the central Solomons in an effort to stop the Japanese from resupplying their troops as well as bombarding shore positions. Almost all the battles were at night.

"It was really a good fighting ship," he said. "All kinds of things happened to the St. Louis. It got right into the thick of things."

Mr. Regina said he was never really afraid. At his battle station, he couldn't see much, like many of his shipmates sealed in their compartments.

"Waiting for something to happen, you did think about it," he said. "I never really worried about it. I figured it was the same for everyone."

He left the ship later in 1943, his four-year enlistment term up. He went home for 30 days, then returned to the Pacific to work aboard a floating dry dock.

After that, he was assigned to a new ship, still being built in Washington state. While waiting, he decided to try for submarine duty, so he went to Wisconsin to learn hydraulics. Late in the war, he was shipped to Bremerhaven, Germany, where he spent a month scuttling German patrol boats left over from the fighting in Europe.

He was at a training base in Maryland when the war in the Pacific ended.

He felt fortunate that he left the St. Louis when he did, because her luck did not last.

On Valentine's Day in 1944, a bomb killed 23 of her crew off New Guinea. Later that year, a kamikaze slammed into her during the Leyte Gulf campaign, killing 16.

Mr. Regina knew some of those men.

"You feel like you should have been there," he said, "but you're glad you weren't."

Back home in the U.S., Mr. Regina did what millions of other vets did: He went to work and settled into domestic life. He spent 35 years at the Edgar Thomson Steel Works.

His first wife, Grace, whom he married in 1948, died of breast cancer in 1952. He and his second wife, Peggy, have been married since 1971, living most of that time in Wilkinsburg until Mr. Regina suffered a stroke last year and the couple moved to Beatty Pointe.

Mr. Regina is proud of his service and for many years attended meetings of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. But he was never big on talking about his experiences.

He once turned down a request to speak at the USS Arizona memorial and he chose not to participate in the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that records the experiences of vets.

He doesn't even have his medals; he never had children, so he gave the decorations to his doctor, Ricci Minella, who has them on display at his office.

Unlike many veterans of the Pacific war, Mr. Regina bore no ill will toward the Japanese during the fighting and none now, 70 years later.

"A lot of guys wouldn't buy their cars and things like that, but war is war," he said. "[The Japanese] were just the same as we were. They were just told what to do."

He said war is never the answer to anything.

"I think we need to be re-educated," he said. "We need to get along."

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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