The Civilian Pearl Harbor Hero

June 04, 2019

When George Walters reported for work on the morning of December 7, 1941, there was no way he could have been prepared for the dramatic turn his day would soon take. Walters wasn’t a trained member of the military like many of those with whom he worked. He was a civilian working a living as a crane operator at the Pearl Harbor naval base. At approximately 0755, everything changed and Walters was no longer just a bystander. In an instant, he found himself in the midst of the chaos that erupted when an aerial striking force of the Imperial Japanese Navy came roaring overhead. By the time the attack was over, George Walters would become a civilian Pearl Harbor hero.

Pearl Harbor’s Crane Operator

Pearl Harbor Battleship USS Pennsylvania
USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) in dry dock. George Walters operated the crane on the right

Walters worked on a crane alongside the dry dock where USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) was undergoing maintenance on the morning of December 7. A famous photograph of the aftermath of the attack shows USS Pennsylvania aft of the destroyers USS Cassin (DD-372) and USS Downes (DD-375), with the 50-ton crane sitting right next to the battleship. On the morning of the attack, the crane was being operated by George Walters.

It was business as usual when his shift started, but it wasn't long before chaos erupted over the harbor. The first bombs dropped and it was immediately clear what was happening, even to someone not trained for war.

As Walters watched the harbor explode into fireballs and black smoke fill the sky, he also noticed to the Japanese airplanes flying toward USS Pennsylvania. Even though she was dry docked, Pennsylvania was a primary target for the attackers. While Walters could see the attack coming from his elevated position, he saw a group of men on the battleship oblivious to what was about to unfold. Rather than try to escape from the incoming attack, he tried to get their attention before the incoming planes did.

A Civilian Pearl Harbor Hero Emerges

Pearl Harbor dry docks, 10 December 1941. USS Pennsylvania shares Dry Dock 1 with Cassin and Downes. (Image: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Instead of fleeing, George Walters used his crane to try to shield the battleship from the attacking planes. As he saw the aircraft gunning toward the dry-docked battleship, Walters acted as a defense for her crew. In addition, he used his crane to indicate to the crew where the planes were coming from next. According to witnesses, Walters was responsible for helping down at least 10 attacking aircraft.

Walters himself became a target of the Japanese when a 500 lb bomb was dropped on his position. He shifted the crane's position just in time to avoid a direct hit, although he was knocked insensible by the explosion.

George Walters ultimately recovered from the attack and continued working at Pearl Harbor for another 25 years. He passed away at the age of 95 in March, 1999. While the story of this civilian Pearl Harbor hero isn't as well-known as others like Doris Miller and Joe George, his actions on the morning of December 7, 1941 doubtless saved many lives.

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