Today is Pearl Harbor Day, and the Texas Veterans Land Board solemnly remembers.
“December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” began President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his address to Congress on December 8, 1941. The Japanese attack on the United States naval fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii came as a surprise, although the Japanese believed they had sent a message to the administration informing them of the attack — but that message was not received due to bureaucratic slowness.
2,403 people died in that attack, most of whom were Navy personnel. Over half of those were stationed on the USS Arizona, the battleship which exploded early in the battle. Over the previous several days, the Arizona had replenished its ammunition and powder stores, with the help of several crews from other ships.
One man who helped with that project was native Texan Albert Kamenicky. He discussed his involvement in the battle of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath in an interview with the Voices of Veterans Oral History program with the Veterans Land Board in 2007. Kamenicky passed away at the age of 87 in 2012, but his interview still provides this generation with his first-hand experience.
Born in 1924 to cotton sharecroppers in Milam County, between College Station and Temple, Kamenicky spoke Czech at home and only learned English once he began school. The furthest from home he ever traveled was to San Antonio on his senior trip.
His father planned that “he can follow them mules and…do…a lot of the work that [he had] been doing.” But Albert said “that didn’t fit my plans.”
Like many of his generation, he had little interest in farming and agricultural work, and wanted something different than what his family background suggested. He wanted to attend Texas A&M, but his schooling had not provided him with advanced math such as trigonometry and geometry, so he could not apply. With the help of his school superintendent, Kamenicky joined the Navy at age 17. He was the first recruit from his county to join the military, although many would be drafted the following year. His mother knew of his plans, but helped him keep his father in the dark until he had shipped out from Houston for boot camp in San Diego, California. He joined the Navy intentionally; “I just thought well, they got better schools and better chance on advancement and that’s the reason I took it.”
After eight weeks of boot camp, he was assigned to the USS Phoenix, stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. From December 4–6, Kamenicky was part of a crew from the USS Phoenix who helped restock the powder and ammunition on the USS Arizona. They placed over 275 bags of powder under the deck, and he even remarked to the gunnery officer, “I wonder what it’d be like if the sea, if all this powder blow, blow up here? He turned around and he says, you wouldn’t be here to see it.” That comment was made on December 6, 1941, mere hours before the Arizona’s powder stores would explode and split the ship, causing it to sink into the harbor.
Kamenicky and his group left the USS Arizona in early afternoon that day, and headed to Honolulu for a little rest and relaxation. He and a buddy had a burger and returned to the USS Phoenix early in the evening, then headed to bed. The next morning was Sunday, and it was Albert’s day off. He planned to go to the USS California for church, so he rose at regular time, 5 am, put on his dress whites, and had a leisurely breakfast. His motor launch to the California left at 8 am, so just a minute before, he went up the hatch and stepped out onto the deck.
When he looked up, he saw dozens of planes over the Arizona, and the immediate reaction was, “we were just tryin’ to figure out sayin’ well what them damn fools are doin’ — that was the main question, what are them damn fools doin’? They’re gettin’ a little too rough. They must’ve missed their targets, you know. They thought maybe it was just a practice deal.” At first, the sailors thought the airplanes were American planes, but then quickly realized “that’s a got a red ball on it. That’s Japanese.” And then they ran to their duty stations. But Kamenicky saw the USS Arizona blow up before he ran.
Kamenicky was the loader on a 50 caliber gun, but when he reached his duty station, he realized the ammunition was still locked up. The nearest officer did not have a key, so Albert asked him to shoot the lock with his pistol…and the officer sheepishly said that the gun was not loaded. So they had to wait for a couple of minutes until an officer with keys showed up to unlock the ammunition box. Then they aimed at the planes.
The USS Phoenix was credited with shooting down three planes, but as Kamenicky noted, in the chaos of a battle, those planes could have been shot multiple times before they flew close enough to the Phoenix, who then finished them off.
The leadership of the USS Phoenix was not staying put. They took the cruiser out to sea, chasing the planes to find the Japanese ships. They did not find them, which Kamenicky said was a good thing, because they and the few other ships with them would not have been prepared to meet the number of ships that could host 300–400 airplanes; “we wouldn’t have much of a chance”.
After three days, they returned to Pearl Harbor to witness the destruction and debris left behind. The men were stunned. Kamenicky said, “I never even thought about anything on some of those boys and on that Arizona when I saw it blow. I didn’t think about how many it killed on there. To bring it back, when that ship blew up…they said it was 140 some odd were out of my [boot camp] class.”
Kamenicky pointedly said that he wanted to share his story so that the children of today could understand war and make better choices. One of his pearls of wisdom in the interview was when he said, “I know one of the guys asked me one time, was you ever scared? I said yeah, one time…What do you mean one time? I said well, I was scared from the time that first damn bomb hit until the end of the war when I got home.”
However, like many young men from the Greatest Generation, although he was scared, he still served honorably from Pearl Harbor on through much of the war in the Pacific, spending the rest of his wartime service on the USS Phoenix. When he returned to the United States, Kamenicky would become an engineer for the Santa Fe railroad, and would live in the same house in Temple for over 40 years.
You can listen to Albert Kamenicky’s interview here. You can also see the list of interviews available on the Voices of Veterans Oral History program at https://voicesofveterans.org/. This is a wonderful resource, keeping alive the perspectives and experiences of our Military Members from the past up through the present.
The VLB is proud to safeguard these memories, especially today, on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, that caused the United States to enter World War II. We salute all those who served during that conflict, and thank them for that service.
The Texas VLB is happy to provide any needed help for these American heroes. The mission for the VLB is “to ensure that we offer the very best package of Veterans benefits in the country and those of us who work for the VLB strive to meet those goals every day. For more than 70 years, we have had the honor to serve Veterans, Military Members and their families in Texas, and we look forward to keeping that promise in the years to come.” Call 1–800–252–8387, email VLBinfo@glo.texas.gov, or visit vlb.texas.gov to see the different benefits available.
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