Pearl Harbor Survivor Wally Walling: Witness to History

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2016 08:17

FN00264-summer-2016-When planes first appeared over Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Signalman 2nd Class Delton “Wally” Walling thought it was a training maneuver.

“We look up and see that big red ball on the side of the planes, but at first it doesn’t register,” he says. “Then we see the little black objects dropping and BOOM! The first bomb hits the ramp of a runway on Ford Island.

“Next we see planes coming from all directions – flying like synchronized dancers. Bombers up high, torpedo planes down low. Planes going in every direction, and everything is just blowing.”

Walling had set out about 6:30 that morning on a training run, but decided to stop by the 180-foot communication tower that overlooked the harbor. From a shack atop the tower, crewmen directed incoming ships to their berths.

“My shift up there wouldn’t start until 3 that afternoon,” he explains, “but a buddy with morning duty owed me some money, so I thought I’d try to collect.”

From the tower rail outside the crew shack, Walling watched in disbelief. “From 180 feet in the air, I saw it all,” he says today from his home in Valley Springs.

“The planes that torpedoed the USS California came in right by me, just 100 feet away. The harbor’s shallow and only 400 yards across right there, so they had to drop down, get over the USS Helena and launch their torpedoes before peeling off. I’m looking right down at the pilots. Their canopies are shoved back and scarves are flying out the windows. I could see their faces, looking straight ahead, frozen to the controls.”

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At boot camp, 1940

Along Battleship Row, the USS Arizona was hit by four bombs, the last penetrating the armored deck just 10 minutes into the attack. “I happened to be looking right at the Arizona when the last bomb hit,” Walling says. “I thought it went down the stack because a big plume of smoke went straight in the air.”

Seven seconds later, forward ammunition magazines exploded and instantly killed nearly 1,200 of the roughly 1,500 men on board.

“All the ships were on fire,” Walling continues. “Men who jumped off or were knocked off ships were swimming through burning oil. We were taught that if you’re swimming in burning oil, you come up, wave your hands to spread the flames, take a breath, and dive. A lot of them did that, but you had to be a good swimmer. And some of them weren’t.”

The USS Shaw was in dry dock only 400 yards from Walling and the tower when three bombs struck the destroyer and set it afire. The order to abandon ship was given, and a half hour later, the forward ammunition magazines exploded, ripping the bow completely away from the rest of the ship.

“The concussion just about knocked us over,” Wally says. “It was a huge explosion. The Arizona had been farther away and the water around it controlled some of that concussion, but the Shaw … that’s the explosion you see in the photos.”

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The tower as it appears today

Did he think he might be killed out on that tower rail?

“Hell yes. During the second wave, the Japanese are strafing everything. Why they didn’t strafe us, I don’t know. The Helena (a light cruiser) is firing at Jap planes, and her bullets are going by that damn tower. You could hear them – psew, psew, psew. We had to call down and tell them to aim the other way.”

Walling didn’t leave the tower for 14 hours. For much of that afternoon and for several days afterward, the men on the tower watched for bodies rising to the surface of the water. “We’d see one and then notify the guys down in the boats, and they’d go out and pick ’em up.”

What was going through his mind as he witnessed the near-total destruction of the Pacific Fleet? “You’re devastated, man. Mad, because you’ve been told you’re the greatest navy in the world, and in the first 10 minutes, it’s basically over with.”

The attack may have ended but the war had just begun, and Wally Walling was full of fight. Both before the service and while in the Navy, he amassed a 98-17 record as an amateur boxer, and though only 130 pounds, he says with no hint of conceit, “Nobody messed with me.”

“I knew what we were in for,” he recalls. “Hell, I cut off my damn finger just so I could join the Navy.”

Walling was the last of 12 children born to Charles and Anna Walling in Shepherd, Michigan. Four of his brothers died of diphtheria and two sisters were crippled by polio. His father, a retired merchant mariner turned farmer, died when Wally was 7. The family tried to manage the farm, but lost it during the Depression. “After that, my mother just disappeared,” he says.

Wally, a self-described “skinny little runt who got beat up a lot,” was passed around to older siblings for several years until Anna reappeared with a new husband. His stepfather, a former police officer, taught Wally a variety of fighting tactics, then set him loose, telling him to pick the worst bully and light into him.

“It worked,” Walling says with a smile. “I was never bullied after that.”

At 14, Walling hired himself out to a potato farmer for “50 cents a week, room and board.” Shortly thereafter, a dairy farmer noticed what a hard worker he was and offered him a dollar a week, room and board. He took the offer and lived with the Crane family in nearby Smyrna.

At Belding High School, Walling played football, ran track and boxed in the 1938 Golden Gloves Tournament in Grand Rapids. In a bout he lost by one point, he broke the middle and index fingers of his right hand on his opponent’s forehead. When the middle finger healed, it pointed straight down.

Walling had seen recruiting posters with Uncle Sam asking men to join “The Greatest Navy in the World,” and that was exactly what he wanted. The day after he graduated in June 1940, Wally hitchhiked 150 miles to Detroit to sign up. When the doctor in the recruiting office tried to straighten the frozen finger, he sent Walling to the floor, writhing in pain.

“You’re 4F,” the doctor told him. “Go home.”

“I can lick the whole bunch of you with one arm behind my back,” Walling countered. “How do I get in this Navy?”

“Cut off that finger,” the man said.

Walling walked the streets of Detroit until he found a shingle that read “Surgeon.” After convincing the man he was serious, Walling admitted he only had $20 and still had to hitchhike back home. “I may need a couple dollars for a sandwich along the way,” he said.

The man took his finger and left him with three dollars. Nine days later Walling reported to boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Station north of Chicago.

An early interest in semaphores led him into communication, and he left boot camp a signalman third class. Assigned to the USS Pennsylvania, the flagship for the Admiral of the Pacific Fleet, he spent the next year running up flags during training exercises off Pearl Harbor.

Then came the Japanese attack. Promoted to signalman first class the day after the attack, Walling remained in Pearl Harbor for six months. In the summer of 1942, he was assigned to the USS Fayette, a new attack transport waiting for its crew in New York Harbor.

Walling spent the rest of the war as a signalman on the Fayette, participating in six of the bloodiest island invasions in the Pacific. Scrapping for a fight when he joined the service, he found it in places like Kwajalein, Guam, Peleliu and Iwo Jima.

“We carried 12 Higgins boats on the Fayette,” Walling explains. “Troops climbed down cargo nets into the boats, and then they’d head for shore.”

As soon as the troops were offloaded, the boats picked up wounded off the beach and brought them back to the Fayette, either to be treated or transferred to hospitals on Guam, Tulagi or Espiritu Santo.

“Sometimes we had 300 to 400 wounded kids on board and only four doctors to treat them,” Walling says. “I had made chief by then, and often the chief’s quarters were used for an operating room. I held many of them in my arms when they died. And we had that on every invasion.”

The Fayette arrived at Iwo Jima on the sixth day of a 35-day battle. “We delivered troops to shore and by noon, we already had 412 casualties back on board,” Walling recalls. “We held them for about eight days before we could leave for one of the hospitals.

“At Iwo Jima we were anchored about a quarter mile offshore from Mt. Suribachi when something happened that I’ll never forget. There was a light fluttering at me from a 30-foot gunnery boat. The signal was hard to read, but I could tell he was requesting permission to come alongside …

“When the boat was alongside, we saw one dead guy hanging over the side and five more dead men in the boat. The only one alive was the guy who sent the message. It had been hard to read because his right arm was torn off, and he had to signal with his left. Ten minutes after we unloaded that boat, it sank alongside our ship.”

Iwo Jima was the last battle for Walling and the Fayette. By the time he was 23, Walling had risen through the ranks and was responsible for communication throughout a 22-ship squadron. He was one of the youngest sailors to make chief, and as the war ended, he believed his ascent through the ranks had only begun.

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Wally and Joan at Pearl Harbor for annual Dec. 7 Walk of Fame

Today Wally Walling is one of the most prominent faces of Pearl Harbor, proudly wearing a jacket and hat that commemorate his service on Dec. 7, 1941. He makes three or four trips there every year – all at his own expense – and stays a month in late fall around each anniversary of the attack.

He sits at a desk near the Pearl Harbor visitor center and greets those who have come to witness for themselves the place where America was brutally attacked nearly 75 years ago. He signs autographs, poses for photos and answers questions about what it was like to be smack dab in the middle of perhaps the most significant single-day event of the 20th Century.

Anchored at Pearl Harbor is the USS Missouri, where the Japanese signed formal documents of surrender. Visitors to the ship are greeted by a monitor that displays Wally’s image and tells his story. He is often called upon to greet admirals, congressmen and other dignitaries.

He can’t count the ribbons he’s cut, and for several years he’s been grand marshal of the Waikiki Holiday Parade the day after Thanksgiving.

But there is another Wally Walling as well.

Following his return from the Pacific, Walling was hospitalized for abdominal trouble and something else – the trauma of what he had seen and lived through.

“They called it battle fatigue,” he says. “There was no PTSD then. They examine you and your thinking, and they decide your disability. They told me I had an 80 percent disability and would get $110 a month for a year. They discharged me from the Navy right there at the hospital. In those days, they thought it would all go away if you stayed away from people for a year. They give you $48 for transportation home and you’re forgotten.”

Walling returned to Michigan and lived with his parents. He stayed away from people for a year, then took a job with a company that made stainless steel containers.

“One day a welder turned around and as I walked by, his welding stick stabbed me in the chest. He didn’t mean to do it, but I came loose – fractured his skull and put him in the hospital. And I lost my job.”

Walling lit out for California in early 1947 and arrived in Stockton with six dollars in his pocket. He took a job as a sweeper at Fibreboard, and within six years rose to superintendent of one of the company plants.

In 1948 he married May, a Stockton woman who had lost her husband and three children in 1944 when a troop train struck their car at a French Camp rail crossing. May had been in Stockton with her sister at the time, but Wally says the tragedy haunted her for the rest of her life.

Walling suffered from nightmares related to the war and knew he was at times touchy and short tempered. When his disability pension was cut to $10 a month his first year in Stockton, he wrote to the VA, saying “You need this $10 worse than I do. Take this $10 and shove it up your ass. And don’t ever call me again.”

Walling immersed himself in work. Besides the job at Fibreboard, he built homes on the side.

“Some do it with alcohol, but I’m not a drinker,” he says. “I did it with work. I worked almost 16 hours a day all my life. That’s how I kept my mind occupied with  good things.”

He pauses, and then adds, “But you can’t control it at night.”

Walling retired in 1976, bought a boat and began a second career as a commercial fisherman. He and May split time between Stockton and the northern coast of California. For many years he owned an airplane and would fly to Mexico for fishing excursions. But he stayed away from Pearl Harbor, primarily because May associated anything to do with World War II as part of her personal tragedy.

When she died in 2003, Walling became one of the most active among the estimated 1,000 to 2,000 Pearl Harbor survivors still living. He speaks often to school and civic groups, and acts as an informal host to other survivors when they visit Pearl Harbor.

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Wally and Joan at home in patriotic garb

He travels with his partner, Joan Bohl, 77, whom he met in Valley Springs while visiting old neighbors from Stockton who had moved there. Joan is a constant companion on the Pearl Harbor trips, posing Wally and visitors for pictures she takes with the tourists’ cameras.

So which of the two sides of Walling is most obvious today?

Any first impression is of the Pearl Harbor survivor wrapped in red, white and blue, telling and retelling what he saw on Dec. 7, 1941. He is proud to have served his country and says he would do it again. He has even arranged to have his ashes scattered over the wreckage of the USS Utah, sunk during the Pearl Harbor attack.

The Utah is a forgotten ship, says Walling, who along with a few others tries to preserve its memory. He has attended all the Utah reunions since 2003 to honor the sailors who died that day.

But is he finally over being discharged against his wishes?

“Hell no,” he answers. “I was one of the youngest chiefs in the Navy. I didn’t want to get out. All I knew was the service. If the war was still on, they would have kept me in and sent me back to duty. But the war was over, and they said I had battle fatigue. They just booted me out.”

Patriotic Wally has completed a tandem skydive on his birthday six of the last seven years. “I wanted to break President Bush’s record of doing it on his 90th birthday,” he admits. Now 95, he plans to make his next jump on Oahu when he travels there this fall for the 75th anniversary commemoration.

Angry Wally admits to still having nightmares. “I’ll have ’em once a week. All related to the war.

“I’m no hero,” he continues. “The ones who died in the war are the heroes. But we’ve got to take care of servicemen when they come back.

“Forty percent of the kids coming home today from the Middle East are screwed up,” he says, his voice rising. “They’ve got all kinds of stress. And my God, we’ve got to take care of them.”

Then more softly, “We can’t just dump them and forget about them. They can’t be treated like we were.”

Click here to read about Walling’s meeting with fellow Pearl Harbor survivor and new friend, Chester “Ski” Biernacki (Summer 2016).

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson June 15, 2016 08:17
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