He Threw His Hat in the Ring Every Step of the Way: Honoring Pearl Harbor Survivor John Seelie
December 1, 2015
Somehow the 74th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor just wouldn’t be the same without World War II veteran, John Seelie in attendance. Currently living in Englewood, Florida, the 93 year old has made the trek across country multiple times; his most recent being just last year.
Seelie was looking forward to returning to Hawaii this year until he found out that The Greatest Generations Foundation were two travel-ready Pearl Harbor survivors shy of the minimum needed to fund the trip and had to cancel. But as Rocky Balboa (Rocky IV) said, “Going in one more round when you don’t think you can – that’s what makes all the difference in your life.” A former boxer himself, Seelie wasn’t going to throw in the towel yet. Last minute fundraising efforts from Lynda Seelie (daughter), Mike Cahill (friend), and a plea on the Pearl Harbor Oahu website were successful and a large donation was thankfully received from the Manhattan Construction of Naples, Florida (see video). American Airlines generously donated first-class flights for Seelie to make the trip.
John Seelie was born on November 25, 1922. At 18 years old, he enlisted in the United States Army at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. He was 19 years old when he found himself stationed in Schofield Barracks Oahu with the 65th Combat Engineers, 25th Infantry Division. He was assigned to protect Wheeler Field, a U.S. air base.
As Seelie’s Facebook page notes, he arrived in Hawaii by the flip of a coin by his captain. There were four men and two places to go. Despite the Pearl Harbor attack, Seelie was lucky to have been sent to Oahu. The other two soldiers were dispatched to the Philippines and didn’t survive.
PEARL HARBOR STORY
On the morning of the enemy planes attacked, Seelie was just getting up. He recalls being able to see the faces of the Japanese planes as they flew in low to destroy the United States’ P-40 fighter planes based at Wheeler Field. He provided a blow by blow account during an interview originally published on Dec. 17, 2009 in the Charlotte Sun newspaper.
“We grabbed our M-1 rifles and our redesigned steel helmets we had just been issued, a couple of .30 caliber machine guns and ran outside. We had no ammunition because it was all locked up to keep it away from saboteurs. We asked the sergeant to open the ammunition room, but he had no orders to do that. So we broke the door down to get to the ammo. We started firing at the planes. Whether we knocked an enemy plane down nobody knows,” he explained to Don Moore, who republished the article on his War Tales website.
It was just like the scene in From Here to Eternity. After a couple of attack waves, approximately 20 minutes later, Seelie wretchedly observed that only 2 planes of 188 were left standing on the runway.
The 160 pound, undefeated welterweight was supposed to fight the night of December 7, 1941. Instead, he hung up his gloves for good. The United States had officially entered World War II.
POST PEARL HARBOR ATTACK
There was no time to mourn the tragedy of Pearl Harbor. Seelie’s unit was sent into the mountains to defend against Japanese infantry rumored to have landed on the island. Shortly thereafter, daily “jungle training” began in preparation for their future destination overseas, Guadalcanal. The Guadalcanal Campaign was fought from August 7, 1942 to February 9, 1943 with the Allied forces eventually forcing the Japanese to surrender control of a vital airfield later known as Henderson Field.
According to his Facebook page, since many of the men in his outfit were from Hawaii, they fittingly celebrated post battle with a luau, complete with a wild boar Seelie had shot down in the jungle.
The 25th Division then headed over to New Georgia Island. The battle was short, but the conditions were brutal, as tanks got stuck in the muck and soldiers were exposed to disease. American forces secured Bairoko Harbor on August 23, 1943. But Seelie was down for the count before the New Georgia Campaign ended, when he contracted malaria and was taken to a New Zealand hospital.
“I opened my eyes and looked up at this beautiful red-headed nurse trying to take my temperature. She looked like an angel to me. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Seelie said during the interview with Moore.
After his fight with malaria (a disease he would have to recover from 52 times in his lifetime), Seelie was released to work as stateside Military Police. He reached the rank of Corporal before he was discharged in June of 1945.
After all these years, when he was about his feelings toward the Japanese soldiers for this article, Seelie commented, “In 1992, I came to terms with my hatred of anything Japanese. My wife and I returned to Guadalcanal for the 50th anniversary of that battle. While there, we met about 8 or 9 Japanese who survived Guadalcanal, and in the course of 10 days of working with them, we had seen all the monuments on Guadalcanal. In the ten days we were there, we conversed quite a bit and I came to realize, that they, like us, were just soldiers for their countries as we were. They were a little more fanatical than we were. We got to the point where we realized they were just the same as us. They were told to kill, we were told to kill.”
Today, the World War II veteran, retired salesman and Cleveland Browns fan is known to be fun-loving and well-traveled. His tenacity has earned him a trip to Hawaii to attend the the 74th Anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor to be held on December 7, 2015. Hopefully, he’ll return each year in the future, for as long as his body will let him.
Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt said, “A man should be what he can do.” John Seelie continues to share his stories with the younger generation as a reminder to “Keep America Alert.” He is a Pearl Harbor survivor who has been a champion both inside and outside the ring, and for that we honor him.