Four and a half years ago, I sat down at Jim Peacock’s kitchen table and talked with him about death, heroism and one of America’s darkest days.
I had a microphone, wore big Mickey Mouse headphones and manned a DAT recorder, and was in the middle of collecting stories for our book, Blue Stars, a documentary profiling South Dakota’s WWII veterans.
Jim was soft-spoken, but spoke very directly about how he looked out of a porthole and saw Japanese planes bearing down on his ship, the USS Maryland, in Pearl Harbor’s battleship row in December of 1941. The next couple of hours became one of history’s major turning points, and Jim had a front row seat.
He survived the attack, of course, and spent most of that harrowing time running around his ship helping to unjam anti-aircraft guns. For days afterward, he helped pull other sailors from oily water, and used a cutting torch to try and reach others in the overturnedOklahoma. Very few of those trapped sailors survived.
Jim spent the rest of the war skirting from island to island in the Pacific Ocean, working on his ship’s air conditioning units and witnessing history whenever their big 16-inch guns opened fire. He was transferred to a new flagship, the USS Missouri, and spent the last days of the war bearing down on Japan and preparing for the mother of all battles. It never happened. The atomic bombs dropped, and soon the Missouri was moored in Tokyo Bay, and was the stage for Japan’s surrender.
Jim is one of 55 men to witness the Pearl Harbor attack and also be present on the Missouri as the treaty was signed. Although he spent the rest of his life working in South Dakota and quietly raising a wonderful family with wife Mary, his identity is forever tied to December 7th, 1941.
And that’s how I found myself interviewing him, gleaning his thoughts and recording the hitches in his voice when he spoke of the men torn to bits and dying in oily water. What a memory to carry for 66 years. It was that memory that I tried to capture in this portrait of him, taken soon after our interview. It’s in his eyes; he was still watching the horror of that day.
Jim died on Monday morning. His son, Jim Jr., called me last Thursday and told me that his dad was going downhill quickly, and that his time was short in this world. I stopped to visit, but Jim couldn’t open his eyes. He could speak, and could listen, but his eyes were shut, and tears slowly ran from them as we visited. He knew what was happening to him. He just didn’t want to go quite yet.
All I could think of when I left was how Jim was one of the lucky ones. He created a 66-year legacy after the attack…but so many of those sailors never had the chance that he did. One more bomb from a Japanese zero, or an errant bullet as he scurried around on the top deck, and Jim’s legacy could have ended on that historic day.
Why did Jim survive and others did not? It’s a question that every one of my Blue Stars veterans have pondered at some point in their lives, many of them daily. Jim made it to 88, and many of his friends from the Maryland didn’t make it past 18.