Vern Luettinger has told his story hundreds of times over the past 75 years.
When the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, he was a 21-year-old radio man from Lake City, Minn., aboard the USS California, moored at the southernmost berth along Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor.
Even in a 96-year-old’s fading memories, there are images that do not waver. Reading the Sunday newspaper over the shoulder of a fellow sailor when the first of two torpedoes hit the ship that morning. Scurrying down the stairs to a battle station as an injured buddy was being carried up on a stretcher. A 500-pound bomb going right down the mid-ship hatch, ricocheting around and exploding.
But for his part in one of the most momentous hours in American history, there is also a disciplined refusal to embellish the horror or his heroism. He never fired a weapon during the attack, he was not wounded, and, he makes clear, he never found himself struggling in the water that day, unlike hundreds of other Americans.
“I was very fortunate,” he said. “I didn’t have to get in the drink like a lot of my buddies.”
On the 75th anniversary of the attack, marked Wednesday, Luettinger’s Pearl Harbor experience is made more profound as fewer veterans of his generation remain to remember. At one point after the war, it was estimated there were more than 500 survivors living in Minnesota. Now, it’s likely down to three. One survivor recently died at the state veteran’s home in Fergus Falls. A Minnesota Pearl Harbor Survivors Association has disbanded because so few are left.
And at a time of heightened concerns about the long-term impact of the traumatic experiences of war, Luettinger said he has seldom been troubled by what he did or didn’t do or what he saw.
One hundred members of the California’s crew died and 62 were wounded, among the 2,403 Americans killed and 1,178 wounded. But the days following the attack were a blur that left little time for reflection.
“You know, at the time things were happening so fast you could hardly recall any special feelings,” Luettinger said. “One of my buddies, he was up in the hills in a machine gun nest. They forgot about him for almost a week. We didn’t know what he ate.”
He does admit that he has thought about a moment when his life could have gone differently, one of those split-second shifts of fortune during combat that could have meant the difference between living and dying.
After the first torpedoes hit, general quarters was sounded and everyone was ordered to man their battle stations. Luettinger’s radar was of no use. He decided to go down below to help out.
As he descended the ladder, though, one of his buddies was being brought up in a stretcher. A fuel line had ruptured and flooded the first deck with oil. His friend had slipped and almost drowned. Luettinger decided to go back up with his buddy. Moments later, a bomb made its way straight down the hatch, blowing up the third deck where Luettinger otherwise would have been.
“I felt I had a special blessing,” he said. “It probably saved my life.”
Another image stays with him. In October, two months before the attack, Luettinger had been operating the radar on a night maneuver when he spotted something in the water. The bridge turned the searchlights on and it was identified as a Japanese submarine. The order was given to depth-charge on contact. But contact was never made.
“After we detected that sub that one night I was talking to my chief petty officer and I said, ‘Do you think the Japanese would attack us at Pearl Harbor?’ He said, “No, I don’t think so. The logistics would be too difficult.’ He died on Dec. 7,” he said.
Luettinger retired as a lieutenant commander after a 20-year career, settling in Richfield where he served for years on the City Council.
But Pearl Harbor has never been far away.
Picture books on Pearl Harbor dominate the coffee table in the living room of his condo, along with a photo album of a 2006 trip to Hawaii to lay a wreath at the memorial. A plaque with an etched photo of the California and of him back in the day occupies a wall in a family room. Next to it is a framed oil-soaked dollar bill taken from the ship.
The California was moored in waters so shallow that it never actually sunk. It was salvaged and went on to fight again in World War II. Luettinger had been reassigned to work for Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, after the attack and never set foot on her again. It was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1959. It was the same year Luettinger retired from the Navy.
“I felt a little bad it was scrapped,” Luettinger said. “But it served its time and its purpose.”