A Special Interview with Pearl Harbor Veteran, John M. Egan
Commemorating the Anniversary, Pearl Harbor, December 7
Written by Henry Simpson, young historian
“Nice that you stopped by” chuckles John M. Egan, former US Marine and survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Guadalcanal whilst stationed aboard the New Orleans class cruiser the USS San Francisco (CA-38).
Born in Indiana in 1922 to an Irish American father and a French mother who met while the former was recovering from a bullet wound during WW1, John grew up in Chicago during the Great Depression and in 1938 he joined the naval reserves. “The government would pay us a few dollars to go to training every few weeks until we were called up”. He recalls that he was due to go to China but after being involved in resolving a security incident on base he was posted to the USS San Francisco. “I didn’t go to Sea School, but they wanted to reward me so they put me on the USS San Francisco as part of the Marine contingent.”
Living on the ship he recalls; “It was okay, we had benefits, our primary function (the marine contingent) was to protect the officers. We were the only ones except the officers who were allowed on the navigation or Admirals bridge, you don’t hear much about that,” he comments.
“Hawaii was a very interesting place, but we were restricted, people did not want sailors in their area so we were kept in the “rough” areas. We were not allowed to mingle with the local people, we were not fit!”
Aboard the ship he was sergeant of the guard. “I had 5 men with rifles and myself, I marched them out, I would raise the flag, the bugler would do his thing, then I would dismiss them.” He remembers “constant training to fire the rifle accurately, we also had a machine gun and some guys trained to throw grenades at the enemy. There were only 44 marines on the ship to protect the officers from the enlisted, (in case of insurrection), they even brought trained islanders on to serve the food to the officers, the sailors were unfit for officer country!”
However on December 7th 1941 at 08:00 hours; “I was on the fantail, what we call the rear of the ship, with the guard and preparing to raise the flag, all of a sudden this formation of planes came up over the trees and started attacking the big ships. They used machine guns on us, the San Francisco was only slightly damaged at Pearl, bullets and an explosion near the front of the ship, but I don’t think it did any damage as we were able to get underway soon after.”
He remembers the Arizona being hit as they were “very close to it, she was to the rear of us, we saw the damage done and a lot of Navy ships going around rescuing people in the water.” With the San Francisco undergoing a change in armament only a few machine guns were available, John fired at the attacking aircraft first with his service revolver and then with the Marines moving machine guns into position, though he believes their fire was ineffective.
Of the attack he comments, “The Japs were smart, many of the crew were in church and for many of them it was the only time they would not be on the ship. Most men though were recovering from getting drunk the night before, I haven’t seen that written anywhere but the Japs were clever to attack when most of the sailors were recovering and that gave them the advantage. I was sober as I was on duty the night before!”
When I mention the 80th anniversary he smiles; “Is it! Well time goes by!”
He reflects that at the time; “We felt ashamed, we felt dishonoured to have been part of the events that were a major Japanese victory, when you are a part of something like that you don’t feel good about yourself.” In the aftermath he remembers rumours swirled “that Roosevelt let the attack happen as an opportunity to get involved in the European conflict.”
After the attack, the USS San Francisco went to sea and in 1942 took part in operations in the Pacific Theatre. Sometimes John even mingled with British personnel when the ship made port. “When the ship came in we spent time to socialize because it was vital because otherwise it was all killing.” The Battle of Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands was part of efforts to expunge the Japanese forces and where John, now a color sergeant, saw action once again.
He was manning the anti-aircraft guns situated above the navigation bridge “We were exposed, firing at planes coming in. They would come in, usually 3 in a formation and open fire.” As for the San Francisco’s AA armament he remembers they had 3 inch, 5 inch and 1.1 inch.
On the night of November 13th during the battle the San Francisco tragically shelled the USS Atlanta in a friendly fire incident before engaging the Japanese with the USS San Francisco being hit 45 times by shells. The shells devastated the superstructure, a direct hit to the navigation bridge killing Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan and Captain Cassin Young. This impact also wrought havoc on the men manning the anti-aircraft guns above them. John recalls that of the 7 men manning the AA Guns, 4 were killed and 3, including John, were wounded. “I call myself lucky, there was a time I thought I would pass away.” John’s injuries were severe and he was sent ashore for treatment before eventually going back to San Francisco and to Oakland hospital. “I was recuperating there for quite a while, then they shipped me up to Yosemite. I was there for almost a year, they did their best to get us back in shape. All we had up there for company was bears” he jokes. “It took almost a year to get my voice back to the point at which you could understand me. They finally decided to discharge me, (from the Marines), because of my ‘disability’, a plate in my head and in my leg. “I was heartbroken on being kicked out, it was a terrible time for me. Out on the streets service personal would insult me; ‘Hey draft dodger, why aren’t you fighting for your country?’ he recalls. “They assumed we were all drafted, I wasn’t and they insulted me like I was a coward, that was the worst.” He does remember though that after the war; “One of the benefits of being involved was when I was out I was living with my parents in Chicago and I had all this social life, I had 5 different organizations I was a part of, it was great to meet people who had been through what I had.”
John then passed through what he estimates were 30 different jobs including ,driving taxis and guarding a factory until “I decided to go into university and somebody asked me ‘why aren’t you in teaching Egan?’ I was the only male teach in the elementary school, they raised me up the ladder to high school and that was it, I had job security, I fitted in. By that time I had married another English woman before his one, (he points across at his wife who has just provided him with tea and biscuits), and had 4 kids. As I had experience as a sergeant as a Marine I was good at discipline so they made me headmaster at a couple of schools, I didn’t like that but I needed the money”. In the UK he became the headmaster at RAF Bentwaters, at the time a USAF base, so the kids of the flyers could go to school!” Most poignantly John comments; “One time I was invited to a school, I was able to talk to the kids and they asked questions, that’s what education is all about, asking questions and getting the right answers.”
When I produced a photo of the USS San Francisco his face lit up. “I was up there” he points excitedly to the AA guns above the bridge, “there, she is fantastic! You bring back memories of a long time ago.” Before I leave he thanks me “You gave me a chance to get back to the 30’s and 40’s, it’s a long trip back in my mind!”
These days John lives in an apartment with his wife overlooking the North Sea in Felixstowe, England.
“I get paid a pension from the Navy, ruled 80% disabled, for which I can’t complain, 80% disability as determined by the experts and I am still kicking around at nearly 100!”
Photo by Henry Simpson of John M. Egan at his home following the interview