ZEPHYRHILLS — Charles McClelland was not quite two full months past his 17th birthday on Dec. 7, 1941, a Sunday that broke clear, balmy and ever-so sleepily over the Hawaiian islands. Aboard the U.S.S. Helena, a light cruiser docked at Pearl Harbor flanked by the minelayer Oglala, he’d drawn messenger duty to the Officer of the Deck, Navy-speak for “go-fer.”
While off-duty seamen lolled in T-shirts and shorts, the black-haired lad from a working-class family in Detroit strode purposefully toward the bow, proud of how his pressed white uniform gleamed in the morning sun. That summer, he’d sent a picture of himself wearing it home to Agnes Brinkman, his girl, a junior at his old high school.
When the hour tolled 8 a.m., McClelland and Marines on the stern would perform precision flag-raising choreography, the Navy Union Jack out front, Old Glory and other banners in the rear. But before he could snap the flag in place, McClelland heard explosions coming from nearby Ford Island. Turning to the sound, he was greeted by a Japanese dive bomber roaring straight for him, dropping a torpedo, then hauling itself up against the sky.
“I saw it coming,” McClelland says, “but the Oglala was between us and the torpedo, so I was bracing for the shock when it got hit.” He needed better bracing. Carrying no munitions that morning — it’s not like there was a war on — the minelayer rode high in the harbor, and the torpedo slipped neatly under it, striking the heavier Helena almost dead center on its starboard side.
The ship convulsed, tossing the messenger in the pressed white uniform like a marionette, and just as suddenly cutting its strings, dropping him back on the steel deck. Seventy-two years later, McClelland still has no idea how high he was thrown, or how far, only that he couldn’t get up.
In the moments it took his surviving mates to respond with efficient heroism — they’d engaged water-tight seals, ignited the auxiliary generator and started firing on Japanese aircraft within three minutes, according to official Navy reports — McClelland came to understand the futility of his situation.
“Three minutes in, Pearl Harbor was over for me,” he says. “Nothing left for me to do but shake my fist and cuss at ’em.”
His right leg, shattered from the hip to the knee, required multiple surgeries to set right, the last involving a wrap of stainless steel thread he carries to this day. But amid the chaos, it wasn’t until a fellow sailor pitched him over his shoulder and laid him out on the dock that he was aware of any pain.
“Lots of boys were worse off than me,” McClelland says.
Twenty were killed when the torpedo hit. Others below decks — an older brother, James, among them — were desperately burned. But Charles McClelland, transferred to a military hospital near San Francisco and then a rehabilitation facility in Hollywood, Calif., recovered, like the Helena itself, to re-enter the fray.
“A bunch of doctors caught us out on the lawn playing touch football one day,” he says, “and I think that’s when they decided we were ready for active duty.”
That came sometime after the morning he awoke to find three movie stars hovering over his bed. “There was Kay Francis, Brian Aherne and that cowboy fellow.” Randolph Scott? “That’s the one. They were visiting the wards. They did that from time to time.”
Now 90, McClelland speaks of all this and more with the detachment of a narrator telling someone else’s story. It’s as though the entirety of his war experience fits in a cooler with a hinged lid and a latch, and there it stays, perpetually preserved as it was the day he put it in there, until someone asks him for a peek inside.
An especially fortunate survivor, he doesn’t suffer flashbacks. Not even when he carries out flag-raising duties at the community clubhouse? Not even then.
From an easy chair in the family room of the Shady Oaks home he shares with Agnes — of course they were married; March will mark 70 years since he hitchhiked from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Detroit on a three-day pass to tie the knot with an actual Rosie-the-Riveter — McClelland says he doesn’t even dream about it. Not Pearl; not the harrowing firefights that settled Guadalcanal; not the torpedoes that finally sank the Helena at Kula Gulf, northeast of Australia; not even the rescue ship that hastily steamed back to the war as he reached for the cargo net others had used to scramble aboard.
You want a starting point for a recurring nightmare, there’s a good one. How many demons lurk in the subconscious when safety eludes your grasp and you’re left in the oily Pacific, one moment sucked like flotsam into the churn of the screws of the ship you’d thought would be your salvation, the next spat out and aboard an overcrowded rubber life raft in enemy waters, bobbing between sharks and Japanese Zeroes?
“Maybe I was too young to know what was going on,” McClelland says. At least as important, he’ll say, were the 30 years he spent as a draftsman for the Michigan Consolidated Gas Co., rearing three children, being a loyal husband and, for the last 34 years, an amiable Shady Oaks resident, not to mention, as the annual anniversary of the date “we got caught with our pants down,” a reliable contributor to the oral mosaic so much a part of our collective Pearl Harbor memory.
And if, when survivors gather Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Barracks Museum of Military History, someone remarks on being in the presence of the Greatest Generation, Charles McClelland, remembering the callow lad in the pressed white uniform who grew up fast, will say this: “That sounds about right.”