By Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Allied Gardens vet shares his story
Dec. 7, 2017, marked the 76th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — so this story is a year too late to be part of the big 75th anniversary recognized last year. But being a bit late to tell it makes perfect sense for Allied Gardens resident and WWII Navy veteran Arthur Roemmich and his particular Pearl Harbor story.
Joining the Navy
Roemmich grew up in Depression-era North Dakota, in the small town of Mott, located about 100 miles outside of Bismarck.
“There was nothing in my little town for me,” he said, adding that his family had no money to send him to college. So after he graduated high school in 1936, Roemmich said his father suggested he quit his job at the grocery store and join the Navy, even though it seemed like a far-fetched idea at the time.
“The biggest body of water I had seen at that point was the stock tank on the farm,” he said.
Roemmich went with two other young men from Mott to the Navy recruiting station in Bismarck, but he was the only one accepted to join — which gave him a case of cold feet about the commitment he was making.
“I got to thinking about four years,” he said. “That’s a long time to be tied up to something, so I tried to cut it down to two and they said they don’t make deals, four or nothing.”
On Aug. 8, 1937, Roemmich and 154 other Navy recruits from across the northwest states left for three months of boot camp. After a short visit home for Christmas, Roemmich received his orders to serve aboard the USS Northampton, a cruiser homeported out of Bremerton, Washington. Roemmich was joined by nine others from his boot camp company and told there were openings in the engineering and deck departments.
“I didn’t know what either of them did, but I said, ‘I’ll take the deck,’” Roemmich said; and for the next year and half found himself scrubbing decks and painting the ship.
A fortunate delay
In 1941, Roemmich was still serving aboard the USS Northampton, part of a 16-ship carrier group due back in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 6.
“We were on our way back, probably within a 100 miles, and were refueling a destroyer,” he said, describing the 8-inch hoses that tie ships together while they are fueling. “The sea got a bit rolly around that time and the destroyer went this way, we went the other way, and the hoses snapped and drug alongside our ship and got wrapped around one of the propellers.”
Divers were sent below the ship to free the propeller, but the operation added four hours to the carrier group’s trip.
“So it was too late to go in because they ran a metal gate across the channel at Pearl Harbor at sunset to keep the submarines from sneaking in,” he continued. “So we had to go around in a circle until the next morning.”
Roemmich and a shipmate were having coffee in a storeroom when they first got word of the events that would eventually change the course of the war, and of history.
“The skipper got on the horn … you couldn’t understand him at first, he was too excited he started yelling, ‘Pearl Harbor is being attacked by the Japanese, this is no drill,’” Roemmich said.
The convoy turned around and went about 100 miles the other way and waited for orders to come in. After the attack was over, they headed back to Pearl Harbor the next day.
“It was something; you can’t describe it,” Roemmich said of the scene he witnessed pulling into the harbor. “All the water in Pearl Harbor was like a lake of oil. Every ship in there was sunk, every one of them.”
The fact that the carrier group was spared from the bombing proved fortunate for the Allied war effort.
“If we were in there, there would have been two carriers, there were two carriers with our group,” Roemmich said. “The Japanese figured on them being there, too. They knew who was going to be in there. So that saved a lot, we had 16 ships in our group that were out there and were saved.”
At Pearl Harbor, the two carriers, four heavy cruisers, eight destroyers, submarine and oil tanker were ordered to load up as fast as possible and get out the next morning.
The group’s first offensive action taken after the bombing of Pearl Harbor was an attack on the Marshall Islands, where the Japanese had built an airfield.
“So we went down and bombarded that and wiped it off the map,” Roemmich said.
Although his enlistment was up the following September and he wanted out because he “didn’t care much” for the deck work he was doing, Roemmich and all other active military personnel serving outside the continental U.S. were ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt to stay.
Roemmich was at the Battle of Midway and helped escort Gen. Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo. He also had a stint working at the Naval Shipyards in Oakland, California, but was on a ship near the Philippines when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“We were sitting in [the Port of] Manila, loading up with Marines, supplies,” he said. “We were ready to invade Tokyo and just waiting on the word from General MacArthur. There were probably about 100 ships in Manila Bay.”
That word never came because the emperor of Japan surrendered after the devastation caused by the dropping of the world’s first nuclear bombs.
“I tell you what, there would have been thousands of Japanese and Americans killed if we went in there,” he said.
Life after wartime
After the war, Roemmich served on a ship ferrying soldiers back to the U.S. In 1946, he received orders returning him to Honolulu, Hawaii, but was now a family man and the Navy didn’t approve a request to bring his wife. As a result, he resigned his commission and worked at the Naval Supply Station in Oakland as a civilian.
“But that didn’t pan out. I was there for six weeks — couldn’t see it. I went and re-enlisted,” he said.
Roemmich and his family moved to Allied Gardens in 1956. After serving for 22 years, he retired from the Navy with the rank of Chief Warrant Officer and went to work for the school district in a Kearny Mesa warehouse for another 22 years. He retired from that job in 1981.
“And I’ve been doing nothing since,” he said. “We traveled a lot.”
On Nov. 27 of this year, Roemmich celebrated his 100th birthday. Surrounded by family and friends, he was visited by Rear Admiral Yancy Lindsey who presented him with a letter from Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer.
At his birthday party, Roemmich shared that he credits his long life to his luck avoiding death during the war.
“There are four reasons why I’m still here,” he said. “The first one is not being in Pearl Harbor. The second one was when I got off that ship, five months later she got sunk in the Battle of Tassafaronga, way down in the South Pacific. Then, the next ship I got on, three months after I got off that one, a Kamikaze went right down through the office where I would have been working. The fourth one was in Manila Bay when they called [the invasion of Japan] off. I had four chances to get killed but I didn’t get it.”
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.