MATTHEWS – When Charles Averill enlisted in the United States Navy in April 1940, he had no idea he’d witness one of the most significant events in American history – the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The 91-year-old resident of Willow Grove Retirement Community grew up in Wisconsin and decided to join the Navy when he was 18 years old to escape life on the farm. He trained in Great Lakes, Ill., before being assigned to the south Pacific for six years – an assignment that would place him right in the middle of the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing.
Averill was sent to board the USS Honolulu – a U.S. Navy, Brooklyn-class light cruiser active in the Pacific during the World War II era – in August 1940, and spent about four years of his stint in the Navy on the cruiser. On the eve of the Pearl Harbor bombing, a Saturday night, Averill and the rest of the crew pulled the cruiser into the harbor and tied it up to the last dock in the Navy Yard.
At about 8 a.m. the following morning, while Averill and the crew were in their bunks, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the island was under attack.
“We were told that it was real, not to think it was a drill,” he said, adding the island had been under attack for a while before he and his shipmates received word of the bombings. “I was scared to death. I could hear noise going on, the explosions.”
Because there was no electricity on the ship, the soldiers had to pull ammunition from the bottom of the ship by hand and operate weapons manually.
“We tried to get the ship operational right away because we intended to get out of there,” Averill said. He added there were several sister ships tied up to the dock next to the USS Honolulu, firing at the planes overhead. “I think between that group, we got credit for some kills.”
The chaos continued for about three hours – until about 11 a.m. – and the soldiers were under alert well into the evening in case more Japanese planes came. Though the conflict was intense and frightening, Averill had no idea at the time just how significant the event would be for the U.S.
“I think it was about a day or two after,” Averill said of when he realized the event would forever change history. “After it was all over, nobody thought that much about it. We were all 18 to 19 years old … I think it took a few days.”
Averill remained in the Navy following the attack but credits himself as one of the lucky ones who never actually saw any more of the World War II-related conflict. After returning to the U.S. and leaving the Navy, he began working for a lumber mill in Newark, N.J., and met the woman of his dreams, Lorraine, whom he was married to for 63 years until her death in 2008.
Following Lorraine’s death, Averill relocated to North Carolina, where his sister-in-law lives, and became a resident of Willow Grove. He doesn’t think of Pearl Harbor often, but when he does he realizes how fortunate he was to survive the attack – and the war itself.
“What I think about is how many soldiers who were in the Battle of the Bulge and suffered for days and months in the cold, and I was in the war and heard shots one day,” he said. “The Marines who were in the islands, they suffered down there in the heat and that stuff. They should be sitting here, not me.”
Averill said he wants to be remembered simply as someone who “went where they told me to go and did what they told me to do the best I knew how. I was there and did the best I could.”