By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
|Rodney West, a Pearl Harbor survivor and retired physician, greets the Navarro family at the USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center. From right, that's Mike, 15, Brady, 11, Andrea and Rich. West also signed the Navarros' copy of his book, "Honolulu Prepares for Japan's Attack." Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser|
At age 96, it's sometimes difficult for West to remember details of things that happened to him just a few hours earlier.
"My memory is not as good as it used to be," West said.
But when he's asked about what he did on Dec. 7, 1941, West sits up straight in his wheelchair and his voice drops into a lower register as the pictures in his mind rewind 66 years to the sight of Japanese Zeros strafing the Pacific Fleet, bombs falling from the sky and charred men screaming in West's usually sleepy dispensary on Ford Island.
"They had burns all over," said West, who was a lieutenant junior grade officer assigned to the dispensary with six other Navy doctors. "You'd pick them up and their skin would come off. It was not a nice thing to see."
|West holds court at the visitors' center each Wednesday, signing autographs and shaking hands with people who want to meet one of the last few Pearl Harbor survivors. "He's living history," one visitor said.|
Today, there are only about 5,000 survivors of the attack, including West.
So West transforms into something of a World War II rock star every Wednesday when he sits at a table at the USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center and signs autographs and greets dozens of people who want to shake the hand of someone who not only survived the attack, but treated about 100 wounded sailors and soldiers in a dispensary normally accustomed to dealing with colds and scrapes.
"There were so many" wounded, West said. "We gave them morphine for the pain and treated them with what we had, which was not much."
Dr. Rodney T. West
|Born: Dec. 23, 1910, Wailuku, Maui|
Education: Skipped seventh and eighth grades; Honolulu Military Academy, Punahou School, where West played clarinet.
Naval service: Joined Navy Reserve in January 1940, activated Sept. 5, 1941 — March 26, 1946. Resigned from Navy Reserve in 1949 at rank of commander.
Medical career highlights: Delivered 5,000 babies; President, Hawaii Medical Association (1963); Medical Director, Straub Clinic (now Straub Clinic & Hospital) until retirement in 1975; one of the founders and first president of the American College of Physician Executives (1975).
Family: Wife, Mary Ann (Carlisle) West, died 1994; daughter, Jo-Anne Lewis (Kaimuki); sons, Kenneth C. West (Phoenix) and Rodney West Jr. (Spokane, Wash.)
Lives: Kahala Nui senior residence
West can't hear his fans' questions over the din of hundreds of visitors mingling around the USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center's bookstore, where he signs copies of the eighth edition of his book, "Honolulu Prepares for Japan's Attack."
Many of his admirers are disappointed that they can't communicate very well with West among the throng of people.
But they're thrilled when he happily poses for photographs and signs World War II memorabilia of all kinds for anyone who approaches him.
"He's a hero," Gina LaRock of Madison, Wis., said after West autographed a photo of the Arizona Memorial that she just purchased. "He helped save our country."
Many of the dozens of people who surround West each Wednesday are unabashed in their reasons for wanting to meet one of the few remaining Pearl Harbor survivors.
"He's living history and he's not going to be around much longer," said Richard Schellenger of Eugene, Ore., who bought one of West's books for him to sign. "Once he's gone, he's gone."
"He's part of our history," said Rich Navarro of Brentwood, Calif. "I'm just so glad that I can bring my kids to see someone who's an actual Pearl Harbor survivor. There's not that many left."
West is working on more pages for an upcoming ninth edition of his book. His appearance at the Arizona visitors center each week helps make the book one of the more popular among all of the titles in the bookstore, said Tony Catekista, one of the store's sales managers.
"It definitely helps (sales) when he's here," Catekista said. "But for a lot of people, it's more than that. It can be very emotional for them when they meet him."
West sticks to the facts, with no wiggle room for emotion, when he remembers Dec. 7, 1941.
He had been in the Naval Reserve and was activated in September, while simultaneously running a private medical practice in an office he shared at the site of the present state Capitol.
On that lazy Sunday, West was in his Manoa home getting ready to head to the office when his father called at 8:15 a.m. to tell West to turn on the radio.
In his book, West wrote that the announcer said, "All military personnel must report to their duty stations, immediately! ... We are being attacked. ... The attackers have been identified as the Japanese!"
West piled into his green 1941 Oldsmobile, picked up two aviator friends and barreled down Beretania Street toward Pearl Harbor at 70 mph, stopping only for military checkpoints.
As they got closer, the men could see planes, fire, heavy smoke and anti-aircraft shells bursting in the sky.
They jumped out at Hospital Point on the Pearl Harbor Naval base and looked for a ferry to take them to Ford Island, where the PB2Y hangar had been bombed and was still in flames.
The men could only find an open skiff with an outboard motor and a sailor willing to risk enemy fire to get them across.
"There was all kinds of shooting and noise and we looked at that boat and said, 'We've got to go through in that?' " West said. "We said, 'If this kid's brave enough to take us there, let's get aboard.' "
The sailor took them past the crippled USS Nevada, which was still being strafed by Japanese fighters, the USS California, the overturned USS Oklahoma and the damaged USS Maryland.
Once on Ford Island, West ran to the two-story, Pearl Harbor Naval Air Station Dispensary, where a delayed action bomb apparently intended for the USS California had left a 7-foot-deep crater in the middle of the dispensary's courtyard.
Inside, West saw burned sailors and soldiers everywhere, including at least 10 who were on the floor. Most had suffered flash burns from exploding ordnance.
West and the other doctors worked until 5 p.m. treating the burn victims with only morphine and bandages. They didn't even have penicillin.
West slept in the dispensary for the next four nights, waiting for another wave of Japanese fighter planes that never came.
When it was over, there were no ribbons or medals for what he did. "It was our duty," West said plainly. "You don't make a big deal about it."
Today, almost 66 years later, West understands why people want to meet him.
"There's a special feeling, even for the kids, to shake the hand of someone who's been under fire," West said. "This was the biggest and the worst war we've ever had. To them, I guess I am a hero."