Floyd Herron remembers a bet he won more than 69 years ago but never collected from a shipmate aboard the USS Pennsylvania.
“I said, ‘We’re going be at war in 90 days, and I’ve got $10 to say we will be,’ ” Herron remembered Monday at his Tacoma apartment.
That was Nov. 1, 1941. Thirty-six days later, Japanese Zeros pounded the American battleship in dry dock at Pearl Harbor. Herron manned an anti-aircraft gun, spitting out 5-inch rounds as waves of enemy planes executed their surprise attack.
Herron didn’t pick up his winnings, even though his friend put $10 on America staying out of World War II for a little while longer.
The destruction of Dec. 7, 1941, made it all too obvious that the U.S. was in the fight, and that the sailors of the Pennsylvania would be at the front in the Pacific theater.
The Japanese that day killed more than 2,300 Americans and put two battleships out of action for the war.
Herron, 91, remembers the “day of infamy” as well as can be expected for a man who spent it constantly shooting or loading an anti-aircraft gun under enemy fire.
He lives today in a top-floor apartment at Tahoma Terrace with his wife, Jeanne. They have a clear view of Mount Rainier in an apartment filled with his Navy memorabilia and her oil paintings.
He gets a sparkle in his eye when he talks about Pearl Harbor. He can’t say for sure if his gun hit any of its targets, but he and his fellow sailors responded quickly and kept their enemy from sinking the ship.
The Pennsylvania was among the first to return fire in the Japanese assault, first with machine guns and then with heavier weapons such as the anti-aircraft gun Herron wielded.
The bigger guns were locked up that morning because the ship was under repairs and unsuspecting of an attack. Herron had just finished breakfast when enemy planes buzzed past the ship about 8 a.m. and hit their initial targets at nearby Fort Island. He broke a padlock on one of the guns and started delivering ammunition for his four-man team.
Herron kept his head down during the attack, so he can’t say for sure what the scene looked like around the harbor.
“We were trained, and we had a job to do,” he said.
One strike on the Pennsylvania was too deadly to miss. It was aimed at another crew manning a similar anti-aircraft gun, and it killed two dozen sailors and Marines .
The next day, Herron looked out to see a harbor marked with still-burning American ships, including the Oklahoma, the West Virginia and the Arizona.
“I don’t know that I did much,” he said, “but I did my part.”
Herron kept assignments on Pennsylvania gun crews over the next three years in the Pacific, fighting in Guam, the Philippines and Japan, among other islands.
He was on board when a Japanese torpedo struck the ship outside Okinawa, disabling it only days before the war ended in August 1945.
Herron said he had a good reputation on the ship because “I never let a Japanese plane get in where we didn’t get the first shot.”
Herron and Jeanne married in 1943 while he was on leave in Seattle. He grew up in Peru, Indiana, and sought out Jeanne’s family off Proctor Street in Tacoma’s North End at the suggestion of a friend when he was stationed in Bremerton in 1940.
She was 16, and they wrote letters throughout the war.
“That’s how we had our courtship, through the mail,” said Jeanne Herron, 86.
Herron left the Navy after the war as a petty officer third class. The couple raised their five children in Fircrest while Herron worked a mix of jobs at a bakery, service station and the Humane Society.
They’ve stayed close with other Pearl Harbor and Pennsylvania veterans over the years, but concede that reunions are growing thin.
“It was something we shared together,” Herron said. “They’re dying off. Not too many left now.”
In the absence of that camaraderie, Herron says he’s finding more support from younger generations, like a pair of Navy sailors who took pictures with him a few months ago in his apartment complex.
“When I tell someone I’m a Pearl Harbor survivor, they say they want to shake my hand and say ‘thank you,’ ” he said.