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Donovan awards Pearl Harbor survivor Bergen County Service Medal

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

As one of less than a dozen living New Jerseyans who survived the Pearl Harbor attack 70 years ago, Thomas Mahoney campaigns for monuments and other memorials, speaks to school kids and urges everyone he meets to never forget the sacrifices of nearly 2,400 service members. Today, the U.S. Navy veteran from Bergen County was honored himself.

U.S. Navy vet Thomas Mahoney, Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan
(U.S. Navy photo, CLIFFVIEW PILOT photo)

“We live in freedom today because of all that Mr. Mahoney and others like him have done,” County Executive Kathleen A. Donovan said, before draping a blue ribbon holding the Bergen County Military Service Medal around his neck, during a ceremony this afternoon sponsored by the Jedh C. Barker American Legion Post 153 at the Park Ridge Elks Lodge.

Attendees included members of Post 153, the Sons of the American Legion and the Park Ridge Golden Age Club, as well as officials, buglers and clergy members.

“It was bitter hell,” Mahoney said. “I was at the mercy of the enemy…. No mercy, no defense — like a grownup hitting a baby.”

The First Class electrician’s mate, who attended Ramsey High School and later lived in Allendale and Midland Park, brought a memento from Dec. 7, 1941 – a piece of shrapnel that landed near him on the deck of the USS Curtiss the day the Imperial Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on the Pacific Fleet. He’s carrying it to no fewer than nine Pearl Harbor events this week.

Because the Curtiss maintained seaplanes, there were hundreds of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel on deck, along with bombs, torpedoes and other hardware being delivered to Wake and the Midway Islands, Mahoney recalled.

His brother, Harold, was with him on the ship, which was anchored on the island of Oahu, four miles from Honolulu he said.

“It seemed like the whole fleet was in [that winter]. The city was crowded with men from all the services,” Mahoney wrote in a recent memoir. “The bars were packed and all the houses downtown were doing a landslide business. The long lines of men would block the main doors of the department stores and would disrupt business.

Sometimes we would go swimming at Waikiki beach. This was the first time I swam in salt water. Once this lady invited us to her home at the base of Diamond Head Mountain. She had her car pick up six of us and take us to her home. What a place…huge and with a large pool where we swam all afternoon. She also fed us. It could not get any better. We thanked her and never saw her again.”

In November, the 500-member crew began loading the ship with supplies for delivery, anchored at the Ford Island Naval Station on the opposite side of the area that was targeted, said Mahoney, who turns 90 next week.

[We were] waiting for our orders to sail,” he wrote, but it was never to be.”

Those of us that were going to church were in our dress whites, waiting for the launch to taxi us ashore,” Mahoney wrote in his memoir of the day. I was in the electric shop when at 7:55 a.m. we heard loud explosions and the ship began to roll. We rushed up one deck to the mess hall and I put my head out the porthole just in time to see all these planes dropping bombs, torpedoes, and strafing everything.

I saw a plane bank right in front of me and drop a torpedo which slammed into the old battleship Utah. It rolled over in less than five minutes…. [W]e could hear the men calling. [T]hey didn’t have a chance…., he wrote.

We could not believe our eyes.  All hell was breaking loose, everything happening at once.  Everything was on fire — boats, ships and men.”

The next thing Mahoney knew, a kamikaze pilot had smashed his plane through the deck of the Curtiss.

If only that were the worst of it.

All the time we were fighting fires, they were bombing and strafing us,” Mahoney wrote. The ship was rolling from bomb misses. Then a bomb hit about 25 feet away from us. This bomb was 1,300 pounds and it went down four decks before exploding.”

Suddenly, a two-man, 80-foot sub was blasting them with torpedoes. The sailors fired back and hit the sub’s tower. A U.S. destroyer finished it off.

But the Curtiss was an inferno.

All four decks were burning,” Mahoney said. Men were trapped in different places.”

For nine hours, the crew doused flames. Many of them navigated through fire, smoke and the severely damaged areas of their listing ship, slipping and falling constantly. At one point, they made a gruesome discovery.

We found five of our friends in a half-circle with their arms around each other, burned to charcoal. We all said a prayer. [That] morning I had been to breakfast with them,” Mahoney wrote in his memoir.

Those who remained were preparing to abandon the ship when, somehow, it righted itself, he said.

Mahoney leaned against a rail, looking out at the harbor as a huge red ball” of a sun set, and whispered a prayer of thanks. Then he turned to the man covered in grease and soot next to him and asked about his brother.

It turned out it WAS Harold.

“We embraced and cried like the kids we were,” he wrote.

Mahoney, Donovan,
Post 153 Commander James Donovan (CLIFFVIEW PILOT

Mahoney went on to serve in a series of critical World War II battles in Guadalcanal, Midway, Corregidor, Borneo, the Phillippines and Tokyo Bay, winning various stars along the way.

“War is HELL!” he wrote in a secret diary he kept while serving.

Mahoney, one of the few remaining members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, now lives in Union Township. He has met just about every state and federal official connected to military and veterans’ affairs. He collected thousands of signatures spurring a bill in Trenton to rename the Turnpike in memory of the 2,400 fleet members who died that day – including dozens from The USS Curtiss.

And although the measure never made it to a full vote, Mahoney’s will and determination have led to the dedication of some important Pearl Harbor memorials in the state. That includes a spur of the Turnpike from Exit 6 to the Pennsylvania border.

“These men will always be remembered,” he said.

Donovan agreed. The attack on Pearl Harbor did more than “change forever all of our lives and your lives,” she told the veterans assembled. It also changed U.S. foreign policy going forward to address “treachery by foreign powers” so that there would be “no more Pearl Harbors.”

Although the stats have been heard before, she said, “it’s important to bear repeating”:

“2,388 Americans died in the attack, 1,178 Americans were wounded, 21 American ships were sunk or damaged, 323 American aircraft were destroyed or damaged.”

“Sir, I can never know what you went through that day, but I thank you very much for your service,” Donovan told Mahoney, to extended applause.

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