This story originally appeared in the December 7, 2011 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.
Wetzel Sanders received the rudest awakening of his life 70 years ago today.
He was 18 years old and sleeping in the barracks at Camp Malakole about eight miles from Pearl Harbor.
Sanders had driven an Army leave truck to Honolulu the night before, a 50-mile round trip. He picked up some servicemen from the YMCA there, plus a few from the local jail, and brought them back to the barracks.
He didn’t make it back to his bed until about 1 a.m. Although he planned to sleep late that Sunday, loud noises woke him about seven hours later.
“I woke up and everybody was running and carrying on,” Sanders said.
Somebody said Japanese planes were bombing the island.
“A boy from Kentucky said, ‘Are they supposed to do that?’” he remembers with a laugh.
The men headed for the armory to get their Springfield rifles. They got to the guns but didn’t have any ammunition: the supply sergeant was on leave.
The soldiers broke down the door to the supply room. One of Sanders’ friends grabbed two clips of ammo and Sanders grabbed one. He ran through the barracks cafeteria onto the parade grounds.
Just then a Japanese plane flew by. The pilot’s canopy was slipped back, and Sanders saw the man smiling right at him. He didn’t return the sentiment.
“I was trying to shoot him in the side of the head,” Sanders said.
Once the plane had passed, he headed for the motor pool to get a truck.
Another plane came flying by, and Sanders noticed pebbles flying from the gravel road. The Japanese fighter plane was laying down a spray of bullets. Sanders jumped behind a concrete pillar to avoid being hit and then proceeded to the motor pool.
Almost immediately after he reached his vehicle, another enemy plane came by. Sanders jumped out of the truck and crawled underneath it.
“I wrapped my arms and legs around the drive shaft and kind of pulled myself up,” he said.
Still unscathed, Sanders and other soldiers headed toward Pearl Harbor. More planes passed while they were on the road, strafing the truck. The soldiers escaped danger by ducking into roadside sugarcane fields.
“When we got there, I had seven holes shot in my truck,” Sanders said.
Sanders’ gun crew shot down one Japanese fighter right after it dropped a bomb on the airstrip.
“That’s about the prettiest sight you’ve ever seen. A Japanese plane falling out of the sky and blowing up before it gets there,” he said.
When they ran out of ammo, they went to the water to help pull bodies from the ocean. More than 2,300 Americans died in the attacks.
This wasn’t at all what Sanders had signed up for. He had just wanted out of the coal business.
Born and raised in Lincoln County, Sanders moved with his family to Wayne County as a teenager. His dad had opened a few coal mines there. By the time he was 16, Sanders was hauling coal from East Lynn to Huntington and unloading it by hand.
“I got tired of that,” he said.
When he was 17, he ran away from home, lied about his age and joined the Army.
Sanders said nobody in his family knew where he had gone. They eventually turned to the local Red Cross to track him down. By that point, he was in boot camp in Hawaii.
“We never dreamed we were going to be attacked by the Japanese or anybody else,” he said.
Sanders stayed in Hawaii until March 1942. From there, he crisscrossed the Pacific, fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal and Bougainville Island.
His outfit was about to head to the invasion of the Philippines when a colonel from Morgantown sent him home.
“He said, ‘How long have you been over here?’ I told him and he said, ‘Lord God, how do you stand it? I’ve been out of West Virginia for six months, and it’s about to kill me.’
“He said, ‘If you’ve got anything to pack, pack it.’
“I agreed with him,” Sanders said. “I spent three years and four months overseas and finally made it back home.”
He returned to West Virginia and spent some time as a truck driver. After a few years, he went to work for the state Department of Highways, where he retired 17 years later.
He then drove a van for the veteran’s hospital in Lexington for a while before taking a job at Tri-River Transit in Lincoln County.
Sanders retired from that job in May, after 11 years.
“I was the oldest bus driver in the United States,” he said.
He had a perfect driving record, too, until his last day on the job. He had dropped off a woman at the shopping center in Logan when a guy rear-ended the bus.
“One accident in 11 years. And it wasn’t my fault,” he said.
Sanders has returned to Pearl Harbor twice since leaving the Army. He traveled to the memorial there for the attack’s 60th anniversary in 2001. He returned last year for the 69th anniversary.
He will observe the 70th anniversary in Charleston.
The American Legion John Brawley Post No. 20 will honor Pearl Harbor veterans at noon today in downtown Charleston.
The event will take place at the intersection of Lee and Capitol streets. A member will read President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Day of Infamy” address from that day, and Pearl Harbor survivors will place a wreath on the spot.
Post members also will present a 21-gun salute.