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TEMPLE, Texas — Harold Eaks, 89, doesn't talk much about his experience during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Eaks, of Temple, was stationed on the Helena, a light cruiser, and was asleep when the ship was hit by a torpedo. Eaks and 13 others were trapped below deck in a compartment because of fire. The only way out was a port hole.
The sailors swam to the dock, no easy task because a great deal of the water was covered with diesel fuel, much of it burning.
At one point, Eaks had to come up for air, and the hair on his head, eyebrows and left arm was burned off.
The men re-boarded the Helena, which had sunk lower in the water but had stabilized, and headed toward their battle stations. Eaks was assigned to a machine gun that was normally manned by 11 men.
"That day only five of us showed up," he said.
Eaks and his fellow sailors were credited with shooting down two Japanese aircraft and damaging another two.
During the battle, Eaks was dressed only in his skivvies. Once there was a break in the attack, he was able to put on slacks, a shirt and shoes the men kept at the battle station, and he headed toward a first aid station.
It was there he was recruited to drive an ambulance. Thirty-one hours later, he was still transporting the injured, bodies and body parts.
Chaos ruled the day, Eaks said. There was smoke, and the sound was deafening.
"Ships were burning, and some were trying to get underway," he said.
The Japanese planes were flying right above the water and appeared to be all over the place.
"I don't know how they kept from running in to each other," Eaks said.
On Dec. 11, the Helena slowly headed to San Francisco to be repaired. During that time, Eaks went to Sacramento to be trained to use new radar equipment.
Back in action by May 1942, the Helena began escorting merchant vessels and aircraft transport ships.
In July 1943, the Helena was part of group of vessels made up of three cruisers and four destroyers that went to battle with 10 enemy ships. During the battle of Kula Gulf, the Helena was hit by a surface-fired torpedo and sank.
Eaks and about 100 others from the Helena ended up in Munda, a village on a Japanese-occupied island. The island natives hid the sailors until they could be rescued.
While in hiding, Eaks contracted malaria and dysentery. He doesn't remember being evacuated from the island, other than he felt a lot better when he woke up and realized he was in an American hospital in Hawaii.
Eaks, originally from Colorado, joined the Navy at 17 and reported for training in San Diego in January 1941, a semester short of graduating from high school. He completed high school and college through correspondence courses.
Most of his Navy career was spent on ships.
"When I retired from the Navy, I had been on each type of ship the Navy had — aircraft carrier, heavy cruiser, light cruiser, battleship, destroyer — everything but a submarine," he said. "I don't like submarines."
While stationed at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, he met his wife, Laverne.
After 20 years, Eaks retired from the Navy and worked for Federal Civil Service and Army Civil Services. He eventually wound up at Fort Hood as an air traffic control specialist. He was at Fort Hood for 17 years.
Because Eaks isn't comfortable with sharing stories about the war, his three daughters — Linda Gail Welty, Pamela Lynn Lockabey and Sharon Ann Critchfield — encouraged him to write down all of the experiences so future generations of family members could know the stories.
"He was better at writing it down than talking about it," Critchfield said.
The book, "Just an American," was published for the family.
In the book's preface, Eaks explains that much of the description of the violence he witnessed was edited out.
Critchfield said as she typed up her father's notes she found it amusing that in the middle of technical information he would drop a sentence about some amazing experience.
She learned that upon graduation from boot camp, Eaks was selected Overall Company Honor Man as a result of his academic and operational performances, which included rifle and pistol qualifications, at which he excelled.
With the honor came a dinner date with a Hollywood starlet, who happened to be Deanna Durbin. Durbin appeared in a number of musical films in the 1930s and '40s. The chaperone on the date was Tony Bennett.
Eaks also saw the only flight of the Hughes Aircraft Spruce Goose.
"I learned most of what I know about my father's Navy services from the book," Critchfield said.
During his naval career, Eaks also witnessed nuclear weapons testing on the Eniwetok atoll.
"We're incredibly proud of him and so glad he's still here to tell the tale 71 years after the event," she said.
Eaks said he grew up in a hurry because of World War II.
In addition to Pearl Harbor, he witnessed many of the major battles in the Pacific during World War II.
When the Japanese surrendered, Eaks was in Tokyo Bay on a Navy destroyer that was protecting the USS Missouri, where the formal surrender ceremony took place.
"We were just doing our job," he said.