Like so many soldiers, war came looking for George Vandersluis, not the other way around.
He was a college student majoring in engineering with no aspirations for military service when he walked into a Marine Corps recruiting office in 1940 with a friend who was eager to join up.
Little did he know that decision would lead him to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, where he would be a target in a Japanese attack that killed 2,403 Americans, and later, far bloodier battles in the Pacific: Iwo Jima, Saipan, Tinian, Corregidor.
There was nothing romantic about it for Vandersluis.
“War is hell,” he says in summary last week from his room in the Veterans Home of California in southwest Fresno.
Now 100 years old, he returned to Hawaii on Monday for the first time since the attack on Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary of that infamous day.
I’m 100 now, and I don’t imagine there’s too many of ’em left.
George Vandersluis of Pearl Harbor survivors
He will be in Oahu through Friday to participate in anniversary events, including a parade and ceremony on Wednesday, with his grandson and daughter-in-law, Roxanne Vandersluis, who organized the trip. She hopes it will be therapeutic for George. She says he has never talked much about World War II.
“I guess he just didn’t want to relive it or didn’t want the attention brought to him,” Roxanne says, “because these guys went to support our country, not for honors or awards or anything like that.”
The road to war
Vandersluis was in his early 20s when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in early 1940, much to his surprise. Strolling through Minneapolis, Minn., where he was born and raised, he and a buddy spotted a recruiting office.
“He said, ‘I’m going to join the Marines,’ and I said, ‘Well, good for you,’ ” Vandersluis recalls. “We went in, and they were picking on me, too. They were weighing me in.”
The recruiters told his friend to go home and eat more food, then turned all their attention to Vandersluis.
“They said, ‘You’re the one we want.’ ”
Vandersluis left the office without signing any paperwork, but the recruiters were persistent.
“Boy, the next morning, they were sitting on my doorstep. And well, I thought as long as I’m that important, I guess I could (enlist).”
Life as a Marine was a “radical change.”
“It was quite a shock to my fragile system. … They were downright nasty. You didn’t do anything right.”
But Vandersluis would survive the abuse of boot camp, and everything worse to come. He started his service seagoing on a Navy ship for two years, where he and other Marines served as a police force. Vandersluis was posted outside the captain’s door “like his secretary or something,” but he knew that would soon change once they docked at Pearl Harbor with scores of other ships.
Looking back, we sure expected it and did nothing about it.
The large gathering of soldiers, and the frequent orders they received to stay posted by their ships’ guns, made Vandersluis suspicious that something horrible was coming.
“It was obvious to me, to a number of fellas, that we were right close to war, and it was the Japanese, we were aware of that. I wrote my dad, I think, a couple days before Pearl Harbor and told him this, that he’d be receiving the news about something bad happening over here. Looking back, we sure expected it and did nothing about it.”
Dec. 7, 1941
Vandersluis was raising the American flag on his ship, the USS Honolulu, at 8 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, when he spotted the first Japanese plane flying over Pearl Harbor.
“They were after the battleships. We were a cruiser, and they didn’t think we were of any importance, but they slipped and dropped one (bomb) on us.”
No one was killed on Vandersluis’ ship, but a row of battleships about 1,000 yards away suffered hundreds of casualties.
He says the Japanese made a “big mistake picking on the battleships.”
“The cruisers, we had a lot more power than the old battleships.”
At one point during the morning raid, Vandersluis and his ship’s crew scrambled through hallways filling with water to grab gas masks after hearing a rumor that planes were dropping poisonous gas.
They were just giving them hell.
Vandersluis says one of his commanding officers at first thought the attack was a U.S. military drill.
“He thought our Army was putting on a show for us, and over the loud speaker he just kept yelling, ‘Do not fire, do not fire.’ Well, he kept saying that, but we just kept firing.”
Over the loud speaker, he just kept yelling, ‘Do not fire, do not fire.’ Well, he kept saying that, but we just kept firing.
Still, many listened to those orders initially.
“We finally got firing, but it was too late.”
Among the hardest hit was the USS Arizona. The Japanese air raid killed 1,177 sailors and Marines on board that battleship.
Vandersluis will be an honored guest during the 75th anniversary ceremony Wednesday on the USS Arizona Memorial, which is built above the sunken ship.
Vandersluis served six long years in the Marines. He enlisted before the draft – nearly two years before the U.S. entered WWII – and was honorably discharged in March 1946, the year after the war was won.
“A lot happened in those six years. … I was a staff sergeant, and I ended up in the tank outfit. It was what we called an amphibious tractor battalion, and we carried troops in. We were right in the middle of it all.”
His son, Jon Vandersluis, a Vietnam War veteran who also served in the Marines, knows better than most what his father had to endure.
“It was a bloodbath everywhere he went,” Jon says. “It was amazing that he dealt with it.”
For someone who’s lived this long and been through what he’s been through, it’s like a miracle.
George Vandersluis credits his survival in part to having a “strong mind.”
“I’ve seen too many of them go haywire, but I managed, luckily, I guess.”
He was glad to return to civilian life. Of the whole experience, he says, “The only thing I can say is don’t walk by a Marine Corps recruiting office because they’ll get ya.”
After the war, he worked in San Francisco for several years before moving to Fresno after a friend offered him a job selling tires. He raised two boys in Fresno, where he lived from 1952 to 2009 before moving back to Minneapolis to be closer to his sister following the death of his second wife. After his sister died last year at age 101, he longed to return to Fresno. He moved back two months ago when a spot opened up at the Fresno veterans home.
A simple silver cross hangs above his bed at the facility. Looking at it last week, he thinks about prayers he prayed during the war.
“And they were pretty fast prayers, too,” he adds with a smile.
Jon Vandersluis is proud to call him dad.
“He’s a real true man, he really is. … He’s never ever complained about anything, ever, and he’s worked his ass off his whole life and tried to enjoy it.”
George Vandersluis isn’t sure what he hopes to take away from the experience of being back at Pearl Harbor, but he knows it’ll be good to remember alongside World War II veterans who were there, too.
“I’m 100 now, and I don’t imagine there’s too many of ’em left. … It’ll be interesting to see.”
Support George Vandersluis
Watch: The Pearl Harbor anniversary ceremony will be broadcast live online via pearlharbor75
Fund: A GoFundMe donation account – gofundme.com/2vpu5pg – was set up to help George Vandersluis’ family with trip expenses. A hotel room was donated, but the family is paying for flights and food. As of Tuesday morning, $690 of a $4,000 goal had been raised.
Clovis Veterans Memorial District: Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, 9:55-11 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 808 Fourth St. Free.