12/07/06 — From that day, it was war

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From that day, it was war

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 7, 2006 1:45 PM

When a cook in Sgt. Maj. Luther Saylors' company at Ft. Ruger, Hawaii, interrupted his post-breakfast smoke on Dec. 7, 1941, to tell him Japanese bombers were attacking Pearl Harbor, the 19-year-old thought he was joking.

It seemed to be a normal morning, he said.

But when he looked out the back window and gazed eight miles down the beach, the cloud of smoke rising above the island confirmed his worst fears -- war was on the horizon.

Sgt. Maj. Luther Saylors

News-Argus/Mitch Loeber

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Luther Saylors recalls his experiences as an army medic Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.

"Sunday morning, I got up as usual and went down to have breakfast," he said. "I climbed up those 99 concrete steps and tried to light a cigarette but didn't have a match. So I went back down there to the cook's shack and lit my cigarette and one of the guys said the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor.

"I said to him, 'You can't fool me -- I've been here too long,'" he added. "But then I looked out the back window and saw all the black smoke blowing up. I went back up the steps and some lieutenant yelled for me to get inside."

Saylors was a medic and just the day before had driven a makeshift ambulance -- a beat-up '37 Chevrolet -- for his company. He had, until the morning of the attacks, been charged with helping boys who had fallen ill and sitting beside others as they passed away.

Still, nothing prepared him for the sights brought on by the assault on the harbor that Sunday morning.

"You see things and do things and you just do it," he said. "You just do what you have to do. I was busy from Sunday until about Tuesday."

And while the horror seemed more real with every run he made from one school-turned-hospital to another, Saylors said he still couldn't understand what had occurred -- or why.

"I had a buddy named Joe Seals and he was sitting on this bench in a hallway adjusting the strap on his helmet," he said. "Just naturally, he had real blue eyes. But by now, his eyes were as big as saucers. And he looked up at me and said, 'Saylors, this is war.' I said, 'So?' I had never seen a war. I didn't know what war was."

Most of the men in uniform were green, too, he added. Many had no idea they were living out one of the most significant moments in United States history.

"To show you the mindset, my buddy was in Honolulu Saturday night. So, the next day when the call came out for everyone to go report back to their units, they took a taxi," he said. "A Japanese plane flew by and they dove out of their taxi. He had his best slacks on. It was early Sunday morning and there's dew on the grass. To show you the mindset, before he went onto that grass, he stopped and rolled up his pants. He didn't know what the hell was going on. Same as me."

But as he helped other medics pick up the pieces -- treating patients and giving company to those living out their final moments -- the impact of that morning finally began to sink in.

"I don't have any stories about kids dying or anything like that," Saylors said. "There's enough of that all over the world right now -- right here in Goldsboro every Saturday night. I had them die, but I don't particularly want to remember. War is hell."

And as the country reflects on what occurred 65 years ago today, the 84-year-old Wilkesboro native said he, too, will think about his place in the events at Pearl Harbor and life lessons he brought back from the rubble.

"I learned a lot during that period that I didn't realize I had learned until I was a lot older and had sense enough to understand," he said. "Life is pretty damn short when you think about it ... You're only here on this Earth for a short period of time. I bring back the belief that life is short and we should do as much as we can. Most people don't. I know I didn't."

But he will always remember the sight of that smoke, climbing high above the Hawaiian terrain and the sounds of chaos all around.

"There are many times during the year, not just on Dec. 7, that I think of that day," Saylors said. "The guys that were there, many of them have passed away. I think about where they went from there. I know where I went but I don't know where they went. I can tell you most of their names right now. I think Dec. 7 is more than just one day for me -- it's always there."

He sees that morning clearly in the forefront of his mind -- the carnage and the bravery that rose from its ashes -- every time he looks at the American flag.

"To me, retreat formation in the Army, when they lower the flag at 5 o'clock, that's the most beautiful bugle call there is," he said, choking up. "You can stand out there in Atlanta, Ga., in July, with your long sleeve shirts, neck ties and everything. There's sweat rolling down your back and when they lower that flag you just get chills. That's what makes this country worth it."

And tomorrow, when the celebrations, moments of silence, speeches and salutes are gone for another year, he will think about the men and women overseas right now, Saylors said. His sacrifice, he added, was no more significant than theirs.

"The American people should get down on their knees every night and thank their Lord that we have the armed forces we have and the leadership we have," he said. "To know that the armed forces are there to serve this country to the best of their ability and protect us from all our enemies is a special thing. That's what I believe in. I believe in this country."