Joe Quercia, 94, was 19 years old and one year into the U.S. Navy when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
“I was on a repair ship, the U.S.S. Medusa,” Quercia said. “I looked out the porthole, and I said ‘Must be having gunnery practice on Ford Island this morning in Honolulu, they even got red spots on the airplanes.’ Then it comes on the speaker: ‘This is war, the Japanese have invaded us.’ And I thought, what in God’s world?”
He and his friend ran to get ammunition, Quercia said.
“And that’s how we started the war, with one gun.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Fresno Bee
Quercia, who uses a walker to get around, stood proudly on the stage in the Clovis Veterans Memorial District auditorium on Dec. 7 to tell his story to more than 100 people who gathered for Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.
The attack that brought the United States into World War II happened 75 years ago, but it’s fresh in the minds of those who were alive when it happened.
The program featured a live interview with Jolly Petersen, a Hawaiian native who was 12 years old at the time of the attack. She was on her way to church that morning, but was ordered by her father to return home amid the chaos, she said.
“We ran home and turned on the radio and it said, ‘This is your president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We have just declared war with the Imperial Japanese Army because they had bombed Pearl Harbor,’ ” Petersen said. “I was 12 years old; I didn’t know what war was all about.”
Petersen went on to develop a relationship with the Japanese prisoners. She was a professional hula dancer and rehearsed on the University of Hawaii campus, where the prisoners of war were held.
“They used to call me, ‘Girly, girly!’ when I would pass in front of them,” she said. Finally, she figured out that they wanted dictionaries so they could learn English.
“Being a Christian, I was kind to them in hopes that they would reciprocate and be kind to our prisoners,” she said.
The Valley is home to a veteran who was held in Japanese prison camps longer than any other prisoner of war during WWII.
Retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Jack Schwartz was 26 years old and in Guam when Pearl Harbor was attacked. At 101 years old, he strode across the CVMD stage using a walker to salute the Navy flag.
“The war had an immediate effect on Jack,” said master of ceremonies August Flach, commander of VFW Post 3225in Clovis. “On Dec. 10, 1941, Jack was captured by the Japanese and was held as a prisoner of war until Sept. 8, 1945, a total of 1,367 days.”
Schwartz stayed in the Navy long after he was released as a prisoner — retiring in 1963 after 23 years — and came to Hanford to work as an engineer.
Quercia, who was born and raised one block north of Whitesbridge Avenue in West Fresno, returned to the Valley after the war and worked for PG&E for 36 years while raising a family.
The Navy veteran recalls Pearl Harbor Day with optimism.
“To me it’s a great day because we won whatever we were doing,” he said. “And it seems like you can’t win a war anymore. Things are different now. I’m proud of what I did.”