Three Pearl Harbor survivors tell their stories. There aren’t many of them left

Fresno resident and Pearl Harbor survivor Joe Quercia stands by photos and memorabilia in the hallway of his home as he tells stories about his time in the service. He was aboard the USS Medusa during the surprise attack of Dec. 7, 1941.
Fresno resident and Pearl Harbor survivor Joe Quercia stands by photos and memorabilia in the hallway of his home as he tells stories about his time in the service. He was aboard the USS Medusa during the surprise attack of Dec. 7, 1941. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Three survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor will get a chance to tell their stories Thursday morning at the annual Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day ceremony at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District.

The honored guests are Charles Lishman of Coarsegold and George Vandersluis and Joe Quercia of Fresno. The program begins at 9:55 a.m. and is open to the public.

Jim Anderson, commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, said the number of Pearl Harbor survivors continues to dwindle. There are three survivors he knows who can’t attend Thursday’s ceremony due to poor health.

In the past year, two Pearl Harbor survivors have died, Anderson said: Ed Waldron, a Navy machinist 1st class, and Marine Corps Sgt. Elmer Wright.

This year marks the 76th anniversary of “a day which will live in infamy,” in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt. The surprise attack destroyed several battleships, killed 2,401 Americans and pushed the United States into World War II.

In Fresno, the Fresno Veterans Memorial Museum at 2425 Fresno St. will also have a program beginning about 10 a.m. There will be a color guard and deputy director Mike Harris will talk about Pearl Harbor.

In Visalia, a ceremony will be held at the Greatest Generation Mural on South Mooney Boulevard. The ceremony will begin with a cannon fired at 10:55 a.m. No Pearl Harbor survivors are known to be still alive in the Visalia area, according to the Visalia Veterans Committee.

The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded in 2011.

Below are the stories of three survivors from the Fresno area.

Charles Lishman rode in the annual parade in Raymond in April 2017. Susan Larsen submitted photo

Charles Lishman, 97

Lishman got a job in the Merchant Marine at age 16 and his father was a sea captain for Union Oil, so it was only natural to enlist in the Navy at age 17.

At 21, Lishman married his wife Dorothy in Las Vegas before shipping out from San Diego on the USS Perry, a destroyer converted to a minesweeper. The ship sailed to its homeport in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Lishman’s enlistment ended Dec. 2, 1941, and he was due to come home Dec. 8 – but that was about to change.

“It was a beautiful Sunday morning,” he told The Bee in 2011. He was having breakfast when he and his shipmates saw Japanese planes overhead.

“We looked up and my gosh, they started blowing everything up,” he said. “We wondered what was going on.”

Lishman and his shipmates scrambled for the guns and ammunition and started firing.

“I remember the flames and I thank God how lucky we were that they didn’t hit the fuel tanks,” he said. “They could have wiped out the entire fleet.”

The USS Perry is credited with taking out a Japanese airplane before going out to sea to look for submarines. It returned a few hours later.

“When we came back to the channel, we saw everything was burning and, man, that’s when it hit us,” he said. “That’s when you wanted almost to sit there and cry.”

A ship with a scoop picked up the bodies that floated among the burning ships and oily water.

George Vandersluis pictured in uniform in the 1940s. The World War II veteran served in the Marine Corps from 1940 to 1946. VANDERSLUIS FAMILY

George Vandersluis, 101

Vandersluis was born and raised in Minneapolis. The Bee wrote about Vandersluis when he was 100.

He was walking around Minneapolis with a pal when they came to a recruiting office. His buddy said he was going to join the Marines, to which Vandersluis said, “Well, good for you.”

They went inside. The recruiters told his friend he needed to go home and eat more food, then weighed Vandersluis on a scale and said, “You’re the one we want.”

The next day, the persistent recruiters came to his home and before long he had enlisted. He spent two years on a ship in a police force detail.

At Pearl Harbor, he received frequent orders to stay posted by the ship’s guns, which made him suspicious, he said.

“It was obvious to me, a number of fellas, that we were right close to war, and it was the Japanese, we were aware of that,” he said. “I wrote my dad, I think, a couple of 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.”

About 7:55 a.m., he was raising the flag on the USS Honolulu when he saw a Japanese plane flying over the harbor. A bomb dropped on his ship, but no one was killed. But a row of battleships about a half mile away was hit hard, resulting in hundreds of dead and wounded.

The chaos of war was such that one of his commanding officers at first thought it was U.S. military drill.

“Over the loudspeaker, he just kept yelling, ‘Do not fire.’ Well, he kept saying that, but we just kept firing,” he said.

Last year, Vandersluis went to Pearl Harbor where he was an honored guest during ceremonies at the USS Arizona Memorial for the 75th anniversary of the attack.

Vandersluis was honorably discharged in March 1946.

After the war, he worked in San Francisco for several years before moving to Fresno when a friend offered him a job selling tires. He raised his two sons and lived in Fresno from 1952 to 2009 before moving to Minneapolis to be closer to his sister. After she died, he moved back to Fresno and now lives at the Veterans Home of California in southwest Fresno.

Joe Quercia, 95

Dec. 7 was supposed to be a day for going to the beach. Joe Quercia, who grew up in west Fresno, was talking to a buddy on the USS Medusa when he heard gunfire.

“I looked out the porthole and I said, ‘Must be having gunnery practice on Fort Island this morning in Honolulu, they even got red spots on the airplanes,’ ” he said. Then it comes on the speaker, ‘This is war, the Japanese have invaded us.’ And I thought, what in God’s world?”

The Medusa, a repair ship, was docked not far from the Arizona.

“I watched all these planes coming over and (heard) the Arizona get blown up,” he said. “When it exploded, you could sure feel the heat.”

The attack lasted about an hour and a half. The Medusa’s crew mounted two machine guns and opened fire on the planes and a submarine.

Quercia, who enlisted in the Navy at 18, achieved the rank of chief petty officer during his six years in service. When he returned to California after the war, he worked for Pacific Gas and Electric for 36 years and raised a family. Quercia has attended several Pearl Harbor Day ceremonies in Fresno.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

If you go

What: Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day

Where: Clovis Veterans Memorial Building, 808 Fourth St., Clovis

When: 9:55 a.m. Thursday

Information: 559-299-0471