Hal Mayo and Ernie Schwarz: A Tale of Two Survivors

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson March 14, 2017 21:00

One young sailor was “mad as hell” that a Japanese pilot was shooting at him. For another, watching torpedoes fall on Pearl Harbor was so unreal it was “like a dream.” Seventy-five years later, they recall the horrific events that unfolded one Sunday morning in 1941.

Hal Mayo, 95

Ernie Schwarz, 97

Hal Mayo had never aimed a gun at another human being. He had never fired a shot in anger.

But on Dec. 7, 1941, Mayo, then 19, didn’t think twice about pulling his Colt .45 and emptying all nine rounds at the low-flying Japanese pilot who was strafing him and the Navy float plane he was protecting.

“There was a continuous stream of bullets coming at me,” recalls Mayo, now 95 and living in Groveland. “They zipped by, kicking up dirt just six feet away.”

All along the launch ramp at Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station – nine miles east of Pearl Harbor – bullets tore into planes and set them afire. Everywhere men rushed to put out flames, then dove for cover as more Zeroes screamed by, raking them, the planes and the three hangars.

Mayo was a member of VP-14, a PBY patrol squadron. He had the 8 a.m. watch that Sunday, so about 7:30, dressed in his whites, he walked over to Hangar 3 where he was issued a sidearm.

“Most of the planes were lined up in neat rows on the ramp, but a few were in the hangars,” Mayo explains. “About 7:40 we heard machine guns, and I thought the Air Corps must be having gunnery practice. The sounds of shooting got closer, and that’s when I saw two Zeroes coming right at us.

“It was obvious the planes were Japanese – they had the red rising sun on the wings, and they were so low we could see the pilots’ faces,” he says. “I’ll never forget the first one. His canopy was slid back, and he had a grin like you wouldn’t believe. He was really enjoying himself.”

The attackers continued to strafe the parked planes, setting them afire to ensure they couldn’t respond to the ensuing attack on Pearl Harbor.

“We could see machine gun bullets kicking up dirt along the ramp,” Mayo recalls, “and then one airplane headed right toward Hangar 2 and the PBY parked inside. I stood in front of the open hangar door as he raced toward me, and that’s when I pulled my .45 and emptied it at him.

“I know I didn’t hit him,” Mayo says. “I should have led him a little, but I fired right at him as he went over my head. I was just mad as hell to think that somebody would shoot at me.”

Mayo’s PB4Y crew on Guadalcanal in ’43; he’s in front at far right

In minutes the attackers had wreaked havoc. They then veered off for Pearl Harbor, where 21-year-old Ernie Schwarz was still asleep after an evening watch at the base administration building.

“My bunk was on the third floor of the receiving station,” explains Schwarz, now 97. “About 7:55 that morning, I woke up to the sound of bombs going off. I stood up and looked out the window. I had a direct view toward Battleship Row a half mile away.

“I’m thinking, ‘They can’t be doing drills on a Sunday morning,’ ” he recalls. “Then I look down the channel and see these explosions, and I realize we’re under attack.

“Right then torpedo planes start flying by my window, maybe 50 to 70 feet off the ground … I can see the pilots’ faces. The first one drops a torpedo, it sinks a little and then comes back up and goes on its merry way. Moments later the Oklahoma is rocked by a terrific explosion.”

A second plane went by and dropped its torpedo.

“When a third plane is right at my window, the front of it explodes and fire rips along the fuselage toward the open canopy. A five-inch shell from one of our cruisers must have hit it … I could clearly see the pilot’s face, and it started to shrivel from the heat. The plane seemed to stop a moment in the air, then it dropped like a rock right into the water.”

After a fourth plane launched its torpedo in front of him, Schwarz heard someone yell up the staircase, “All hands muster here RIGHT NOW.” He threw on his clothes and raced downstairs. He and other sailors were ordered to run to the Navy Yard where the USS Pennsylvania was in dry dock a half mile away.

“As we were running across a little golf course next to the officers’ club, this plane came in from the north, dove down and started to strafe us,” Schwarz says.

The men threw themselves on their bellies as bullets from the Japanese fighter ripped through the trees above them.

They jumped up and finished their dash to the dry dock, where they found the Pennsylvania had taken a bomb, and a fire was raging. “We grabbed hoses,” Schwarz says, “and started pouring water on the bow of the Pennsie.”

Schwarz in Honolulu, 1942

Back at Kaneohe Bay, the first wave of attackers had left the base in shambles. Burning planes littered the launch ramp along the shore, and sailors sprinted back and forth setting up machine gun pits. Mayo found a bit and brace, and when another crewman wrenched a machine gun from a burning PBY, the two drilled into a pile of lumber and mounted the gun right there. Within minutes more Japanese planes arrived.

“The second wave was there to bomb more than strafe,” Mayo explains. “They were too high for us to do much damage with our guns. We didn’t know where they came from or how soon they’d be back. It wasn’t until late in the day that we learned what the Japanese had done at Pearl Harbor after they left us.

“We stayed in that lumber pile manning the machine gun. On Sunday afternoon, they brought by a 50-gallon drum of black coffee. They had us strip off our white uniforms and dip them in the coffee to make us less visible from the air. Finally, on Wednesday, after three days without action, we returned to the barracks for showers and a meal.”

The first enemy plane shot from the sky by Americans in World War II is believed to have fallen at Kaneohe Bay. John Finn, who set up a machine gun 50 or 60 yards from Mayo, was wounded several times and became the first Medal of Honor recipient of World War II.

Eighteen sailors and two civilians were killed at Kaneohe Bay. Of the 36 planes stationed there, 33 were destroyed or damaged.

While Mayo manned a machine gun, Schwarz and fellow crewmen at Pearl Harbor were dousing fires on the Pennsylvania and on the Cassin and Downes, two destroyers also in dry dock next to the battleship.

“While we were doing that, the second wave of Japanese planes was flying overhead, and it had bombers at about 9 or 10,000 feet,” Schwarz recalls. “We looked up and could see bombs flip-flopping down. I thought they were going to come right down on us.”

The bombs missed the firefighters, but damaged some nearby ships. “It took us 25 or 30 minutes to put the blaze out,” Schwarz recalls. “That lead paint is so full of oil … it really puts on a fire.”

By 9:45, the Japanese attack was over. It had taken less than two hours, but the American fleet lay in ruins; 2,403 Americans had been killed and 1,178 wounded. Rescue boats raced around the harbor, pulling survivors and bodies from the oily water.

“There’s smoke and fire everywhere,” Schwarz says. “Ships are burning and the oil on the water is on fire too.”

All eight battleships were damaged or sunk, though six would eventually return to service. Three cruisers, three destroyers, and four auxiliary ships were badly damaged, and nearly 350 aircraft were destroyed or damaged.

Looking back on that day, Mayo doesn’t remember being afraid. “When things start happening, you don’t really have time to be scared.”

Schwarz recalls feeling a sense of disbelief. “My first thought was ‘Somebody’s sure going to pay for these planes dropping torpedoes.’ It’s kind of like you can’t believe what you’re looking at. It’s kind of like a dream.’”

Both men were children of the Depression who had known hardship firsthand.

The youngest of six children, Mayo grew up in Herkimer, NY. His father lost his job in 1932, and the family often depended on handouts while his dad occasionally worked as a carpenter on WPA projects.

“In high school, my real interest was aviation,” says Mayo, who wanted to become an aeronautical engineer. “From the time I was a little kid, I built model airplanes and read everything I could about flying.”

In 1940, after listening to a recruiter’s promise that he’d “see the world,” he signed up for a six-year hitch in the Navy.

After boot camp and Aviation Machinist’s Mate school, he joined the crew of the USS New Orleans, a cruiser stationed at Pearl Harbor. Mayo was transferred to the Kaneohe Bay PBY squadron just six days before the Japanese attack.

Schwarz was raised in Stockton. His mother died from TB when he was eight, and his father disappeared a year later. Ernie and his younger sister were adopted by his grandparents and lived, he says, “one step above welfare.”

At 14, he taught himself to type and learned Morse Code. Three years later, a keen interest in amateur radio led him to the Naval Communication Reserve, where he went to weekly meetings and annual summer camps – including one aboard the USS Oklahoma, a ship he saw destroyed a few years later.

In early 1941 he reenlisted for active duty and was assigned to Pearl Harbor, where he helped send out teletypes and coded transmissions to Naval installations across Oahu.

After Pearl Harbor, Mayo and Schwarz had more close calls.

As part of a bombing squadron, Mayo and his crew hunted Japanese ships and made bombing runs in the Solomon Islands. Occasionally they were on the other end of bombing raids.

“We were housed in Dallas huts on Guadalcanal,” he says, “and outside each one was a foxhole where we’d go if we were under attack.

“I was never afraid unless I heard a bomb that was calling my name. Those sounded different – they kind of scream or screech as they come at you. Once when I was on top of a water truck, I heard a bomb calling my name. I scrambled under the truck, and when the bomb hit about 50 yards away, I didn’t get a scratch.”

Schwarz attended radio electronics school and then was assigned to the USS Piedmont, a destroyer tender. In 1944, he and other shipmates were servicing destroyers in the South Pacific when the USS Mt. Hood, an ammunition ship harbored at Manus Island, exploded with 3,800 tons of ordnance onboard. Schwarz’s ship was a half-mile away.

“Bombs and ammunition were flung all over the harbor, and three bombs hit the Piedmont, though none exploded,” he says. “If they had exploded, they would have scraped me off the deck with a putty knife.”

At the close of World War II, Schwarz and Mayo were honorably discharged.

Schwarz worked for the Mare Island Navy Electronics Department, then spent 45 years in electrical engineering at Lawrence Livermore Lab. His wife of 41 years, Helen, died in 1997. Today Ernie divides his time between Danville and Sonora, where he spends time with daughter Kathy and her husband, Jim.

After the Navy, Mayo took a job with the Board of Fire Underwriters in San Francisco. Transferred to Fresno in 1948, Mayo invited older brother Don, sister-in-law Evelynn and their three children to live in his house. Don, a sheet metal worker, asked Hal to make sure his family was provided for should anything happen to him.

Something did. In 1952 Don died of a heart attack, and Hal supported Evelynn and the kids as promised. They married six years later, and Hal adopted Judy, Don Jr. and Terry. In 1998 he retired after 51 years in the fire insurance field. With Evelynn in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the couple moved to Groveland to be near Hal’s daughter.

Shortly after Evelynn’s death in 2002, Mayo met Sonja, now 79, and the two were married in 2011. “She takes good care of me,” he says. He likes to watch the San Francisco Giants games and will catch the news on TV, but a good deal of the time he sits on his porch and smokes cigars.

Though Mayo and Schwarz have never met, the two men have much in common: memories of a pivotal day in history and pride in their wartime service.

“Those were probably the best years of my life,” says Mayo. “I learned so much in the Navy. I think everybody should spend some time in the service. Then they’d be ready to go out in the world.”

“I’d do it again,” Schwarz says. “If I could be of any service, I’d go in tomorrow.”

Read more local World War II veterans’ stories online at memoircenter.com.

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson March 14, 2017 21:00
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