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Pearl Harbor survivor

Peña's 'good life' was infamously altered

Dec. 7, 1941: the day that will live in infamy. Millions of lives were altered, but none so drastically as those aboard ships in picturesque Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning. Richard Peña, who has called Bonita home for more than 50 years, was one such sailor whose “good life” prior to 8 that morning changed in the blink of an eye.

Ninety-four-year-old Peña, who was born in San Antonio in 1918, refers to himself as a child of the Great Depression and a member of Tom Brokaw’s "Greatest Generation." After graduating from high school in 1937, a lack of jobs led him to enlist in the Navy in September of that year, and he soon found himself in San Diego.

“What people don’t realize is, OK, here was I, a poor kid from Texas,” Peña said. “I’d never been out of Bexar County I guess until I joined the Navy. I’d never been on a train until I got on a train and came to California. I’d never seen an ocean of course. No, I take it back, I saw the Gulf of Mexico, which might be an ocean. But I’d never seen the Pacific, of course, until I got here.”

In the midst of the Depression, Peña was acutely aware of the relatively good life he was living as a sailor, and likens the trauma of Pearl Harbor to that of Sept. 11 or John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Richard Peña at home with a photo of the USS Detroit. Courtesy photo

"I loved Honolulu, I loved the islands, I loved the people -- and all of a sudden, boom, just like that you know," he said. "Just as you can blink an eye, everything changes, the entire thing changes. Your life is just topsy-turvy. And you realize, hey, things are not too good anymore. You know, you get that feeling. And they weren’t for four years. So this is really the thing I try to get across to people: this was a traumatic thing, a change that was traumatic."

Luckily, almost miraculously, the Omaha-class light cruiser USS Detroit that Peña was stationed on as helmsman, was unscathed and no crew members lost. One sailor was injured and later awarded the Purple Heart, but somehow the ship was never hit.

“The Detroit was not hit, although we were standing on the deck and we saw our sister ship, the Raleigh, which is right astern, catch a bomb and zoom, it went right down. Two ships further on, the Utah, caught quite a bit of damage and she turned turtle all the way over, and we could see people on the deck and then they started crawling on the side of the ship as the ship went over,” Peña said.

“We had close calls. One of the things I remember distinctly is when we were still in port, and seeing this torpedo plane coming right for our ship, and dropping its torpedo. And I hollered at the rest of the people at the bridge, I said ‘Hold on, were going to get hit.’ But we never did. It went under the ship. Later they say that they found it up on land.”

After barreling out of the harbor, the Detroit spent three days in the Pacific trying to hunt down the Japanese. They never found them, which Peña said was probably a good thing since they would have been grossly outnumbered.

Peña served three more years onboard the Detroit before being transferred to other ships. Aside from Pearl Harbor, he was in several skirmishes in the Aleutian Islands, and ended the war in the Philippines’ Calicoan Bay. He said after all these years, remembering the day the war ended is a bit hazy, but he recalls hearing about the atom bomb.

“Someone had said we dropped an atom bomb,” Peña said. “And no one knew what an atom bomb was -- I certainly didn’t. I thought they were talking A-D-A-M, one of those names you give to something. But they said no, it’s an atom, A-T-O-M. The only thing I remember about atom was from high school chemistry, where an atom is infinitesimal in size. I said, 'how the hell could that make a bomb?'"

The USS Detroit in San Diego harber on Jan. 10, 1935. U.S. Navy Historical Photo

Peña eventually retired from the Navy in September 1957 as a chief warrant officer. He and his wife, Zula, loved Hawaii and debated moving there permanently after a brief stint there during their naval travels, but with three small children and “kinfolks” in the United States, they decided to settle in Bonita.

As for a post-Navy career, Peña’s only thought was to go into real estate, though he says he has no idea why, until the principal of his kids’ elementary school suggested he look into education. Peña graduated from San Diego State University and went on to a 20-year career as both an elementary school teacher and principal.

He then accepted what was supposed to be a temporary job as a freelance writer, mostly for The Star News in Chula Vista, and 30 years later still publishes a weekly column for the newspaper.

Peña said he has no particular traditions to commemorate Pearl Harbor Day, aside from recalling his story to journalists, schools and historians.

While he speaks about the experience frequently now, it wasn’t always that way. Peña rarely discussed the events of that day until 1961, when he was asked to write a 20th anniversary recollection and was finally comfortable enough to talk about the painful memories.

In November 1941, Peña was in Long Beach, Calif., after reenlisting for two more years and waiting to be transported back to the USS Detroit in Pearl Harbor. He went as a passenger on the USS California, where his compartment was right next to the ship’s band. He got to know the band members and listened to their ad infinitum practice sessions through the wall. Glen Miller’s “Elmer’s Tune” was particularly popular at the time, and he recalls listening to the saxophone players practice it for hours, followed by the trumpets the next day, and so on.

“I got to know some of those fellows, not well, but I knew them,” Peña said. “And they were on the deck of the California playing the national anthem at 8 o’clock in the morning that Sunday morning, when a bomb hit back there and most of them were killed. And for years I could not stand to hear 'Elmer’s Tune.' I just didn’t want to hear it.”

He said it was little things like this that made it difficult to discuss.

Peña was active in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association from its founding in 1958 until the group disbanded in December of last year due to dwindling membership. He is still in touch with several of his comrades who live in the San Diego area, and one of their daughters-in-law took care of Peña’s wife before she died last Christmas Eve. Zula and Richard were married for 65 years with three children and two grandchildren.

The sailor-turned-educator-turned-journalist penned a book about his ship,"The Detroit Years," and has a log of the cruiser’s activity throughout World War II. He said commemorating the event and passing on the history to younger generations is important, since “kids nowadays are apt to skip historical things.”

"It's one of those things; it's a historical day that should be observed, and it is mostly," Peña said. "After all, you're writing something about it right now."

* Related article: SD commemorates Pearl Harbor Day

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