Buck Morris vividly recalls 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor

Navy signalman Buck Morris Jr., 89, was aboard the destroyer USS Phelps on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor.

David P. "Buck" Morris Jr. joined the Navy in 1940 to get away from post-Depression-era Bamberg.

"I'd never been anywhere," he said. "I just wanted to see the world and travel."

The Navy took him to far-off places, including the fleet's most idyllic duty station, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Morris, a signalman, was just getting up. He had taken the midnight to 4 a.m. watch on board the destroyer USS Phelps, anchored a quarter-mile from the USS Arizona and nearby Ford Island.

At 7:55 a.m., just as the first Japanese bombs began falling, Morris remembers hearing muffled thuds through the ship's bulkheads. Seconds later, the ship was overcome by clomping feet as the Phelps crew scrambled to battle stations.

Seventy years later, Morris, now 89, who lives near Ruffin, sat down with reporter Schuyler Kropf to reflect on the Day of Infamy that claimed the lives of more than 2,402 U.S. service personnel.

Q: What do you remember about the instant the bombs starting falling?

A: I was sitting on the side of my bunk putting my shoes on. All of a sudden I heard an explosion in the distance. I could hear people running up and down in the dark. I heard another explosion and the running got faster. Then a guy leaned down a hatch and yelled "The Japs are attacking."

Q: Confusion must have reigned over everyone. Or did it? Did you know exactly what happened?

A: I immediately went to my battle station on the bridge. First thing I saw was a Japanese plane with a big insignia on its wings pulling over Ford Island where he had just dropped a bomb. From then on, it's hard to remember. Our captain wasn't onboard. There was mass confusion.

Morris' job was to send, receive and forward a stream of messages to and from about 100 other ships in the harbor that day, via signal flag, flashing light code and semaphore. It was the main method of communication as individual members of the fleet tried to react and figure out a response. It kept him busy throughout the attack.

Q: Most Americans go through life never being exposed to the force of a combat bombardment. What has stuck with you about that?

A: Ford Island looked like the whole damn island was on fire. It looked like a sheet of flames.

Q: Is there a particular smell, sight or noise that has remained with you since that day?

A: The rolling smoke coming up from the fires. Everything was black. I can see that smoke like it was yesterday. It was coming from those ships that exploded. There was so many of those big battleships on fire. You couldn't see the sky for the smoke. We thought at first the oil fields had exploded.

Q: How soon were you able to get a message home that you were OK?

A: It was a good while. I think it was through the Red Cross that they finally got word that I was alive. Probably at least a month.

Q: How have you lived your life differently as a result of what you saw, did and survived out of Pearl Harbor?

A: When I came out of the service, I guess I was real bitter toward the Japanese because I spent five prime years of my life, from 18 to 23, fighting them. Little did I know 20 years later, I'd be doing business with them.

Morris is part of the Morris Nissan car dealership family, operating on Savannah Highway.

Q: There are probably fewer than 30 Pearl Harbor survivors left living in South Carolina. What message do you all want to get out about that legacy?

A: We did what we did, and we came through it OK.

Q: In the decades that have passed since Dec. 7. 1941, have you learned anything from historians who studied the attack that revealed new details to you about what happened around your ship?

A: I found out that some of the officers and men who I didn't think too much of, I got another view of them after that day. The officer that got our ship under way -- I think he was a lieutenant -- he did a remarkable job. He's the one that took over and got us under way. The captain wasn't on board.

The Phelps was not hit by bombs or torpedoes but was credited with shooting down one enemy plane during the attack.

Q: What have you never told anyone about the events of that day?

A: I guess I've told it all. It was an odd feeling what was going on, and like I said, I didn't have time to get scared. I was so busy receiving and sending messages. They said the attack lasted over two hours; it didn't seem anywhere close to that. I didn't know history was being made, but I knew something was going on.

Mount Pleasant: VFW Post 10624 and the South Carolina Pearl Harbor Survivors Association will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the attack with a service at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum on the aircraft carrier Yorktown, from 11 a.m. to noon. The guest speaker will be retired Navy Rear Adm. Bob Besal. Patriots Point anticipates at least six Pearl Harbor survivors will attend. Admission is free. Parking is $5.

Goose Creek: American Legion Post 166 will host its annual Pearl Harbor Day and WWII Veteran Tribute gala at 6:30 p.m. The youngest sailor in attendance will present a flag to the oldest veteran present. After the service, live music from "Classic Memories Big Band" will play. The address is 116 Howe Hall Road.