Retired BMC Harris Bircher eats a Veterans Day celebration meal at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington, D.C., November 11, 2003.
U.S. Navy Photo by MC2(AW) Stephen Murphy
Story By MC2(AW) Stephen Murphy
Seaman 1st Class Harris Bircher died Dec. 7, 1941. He was one of more than 2,400 personnel killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Just like the news of the attack, the news of his death was devastating to Bircher’s wife and family members in his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. A nice funeral service was held in his honor, and the local newspaper printed a decent obituary.
The short piece was one of the best Bircher has ever read. Just ask him and he’ll tell you all about it.
“A few weeks after the attack, I received a message that I had been reported alive,” said Bircher. “I didn’t even know I was reported dead. My funeral was in the paper. They say nice things about you when you’re dead.”
As it turns out, Bircher was unaccounted for by his command during the days following the Pearl Harbor attack, and the Navy presumed he had died.
Bircher’s family received word of his death when a government official came to their door.
He was one of four Dubuque natives who were stationed at Pearl Harbor, and about a week after his parents received notification of his death, another family in town received news that contradicted the information.
Another Dubuque Sailor stationed at Pearl Harbor heard of Bircher’s death from his own family, and replied that he saw Bircher alive about a week after the attack. It wasn’t long before Bircher’s mother made an inquiry, and the Navy conducted an investigation.
On Christmas day, 1941, the Bircher family once again received a knock on their front door, only this time it was a knock that brought good news. Bircher was pronounced alive and the Navy officially apologized for inconvenience caused to the family.
Today, as a retired chief boatswain’s mate, and a resident at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington, D.C., Bircher reflects on the events of Dec. 7, 1941 -- a day when he faced death for the first time. This was a day unlike any other during his 87 years of life, but it was also in his words, “just another day.”
Those who were at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, woke up to what seemed a beautiful day ahead of them.
The skies were clear and the sun shone down with rays that presaged calm, spectacular weather.
For those who didn’t have duty it would have been a day to relax.
Bircher was one of those who were unfortunate enough to have had duty on Dec 7th, 1941. Or maybe he was fortunate.
Because he was working that day, he was awake well before the Japanese made their surprise visit. At 7:50 a.m. Bircher was preparing for work aboard USS West Virginia (BB 48).
“We had just returned from doingmaneuvers, and I had duty that weekend,” said Bircher. “I was in the washroom shaving and somebody yelled, ‘the Japanese are here!’”
It was then that a wave of 183 Japanese planes began dropping bombs and firing bullets at the nearly defenseless ships in Pearl Harbor.
“At about that time we were hit by torpedoes, and when you get hit by one of those you know it!” Bircher said. “They sounded general quarters and we all went to our guns, but we didn’t have any ammunition because we stored it below before coming in for the weekend.”
Japanese fighters delivered five 18-inch torpedoes and two bomb hits to the West Virginia. The torpedoes ripped through the ship’s port side, causing serious damage.
“After taking the torpedo hits, the ship was pretty cut open,” Bircher said. “We couldn’t get down to get the ammo, water was coming in, and the guys were dead…there wasn’t anybody left on the ammunition line.”
It wasn’t long before West Virginia’s crew was ordered to abandon ship.
“It was mass confusion with that many planes coming in constantly,” Bircher said. “As this was going down, oil from the [USS] Arizona was burning next to us. We had to jump ship and swim underneath the oil and fire.
“Hanging on the side of the ship was a guy who was saying that he couldn’t swim, so I said ‘now is the time to learn!’” Bircher jumped ship, swam under the burning oil, and managed to swim to nearby Ford Island. He was one of many Sailors separated from their ships, and like most of them he was trying to figure out what was going on.
Even more importantly, he had the million-dollar question on his mind: were the Japanese going to attack with ground troops? “I stayed on Ford Island for two or three days,” said Bircher. “Finally, the Navy decided Japan wasn’t going to invade us on the ground, so they put a bunch of us on [USS] San Francisco (CA 38).”
USS San Francisco was at Pearl Harbor Navy Yard to undergo an overhaul that wasn’t scheduled for completion until Christmas. Bircher and other Sailors were assembled and began preparing the heavy cruiser for battle. It was during this time that Bircher had been reported dead. He said the lack of technology at the time, the high level of security, and just the mass amount of confusion prevented him from contacting his family immediately.
“As soon as we got organized, we started communicating a little bit,” said Bircher. “Communication then wasn’t like it is today. You could pick up a phone and make a call, but it would cost you a fortune, so it was easier to write a note.”
By the time his family received his letter, they had already held a funeral for him, and the rest is history. Bircher spent the rest of the war on USS San Francisco in engagements against Japanese naval forces in the Pacific Islands.
“We got USS San Francisco loaded up and prepared for Midway,” said Bircher. “We went from one island to another, taking them back [from the Japanese who had occupied them].”
After the war, Bircher decided to stay in the Navy and completed 20 years of service before retiring as a chief boatswain’s mate. Dec 7, 2007, marks the 65th anniversary of the attack at Pearl Harbor, and many will celebrate by remembering and honoring those who served and lost their lives during a day which lives in infamy. Even though Bircher is glad he was able to do his part and hates the thought of all the lives that were lost, he has not spent his life dwelling on that devastating day.
“It was just one day,” Bircher said. “Much more happened after that. And I had another life after the Navy.”