Editor's note: This article on Gerald Botts and his experience at Pearl Harbor first appeared in The Observer's 2002 special edition about Union and Wallowa county veterans, and again in a 2009 edition. Botts, has lived in Joseph and in Wallowa County most of his life. He grew up in the Flora area and started a dry cleaning business in Joseph in the early 1950s, one he operated for 13 years. Botts later worked for Boise Cascade in Joseph.
JOSEPH - On the evening of Dec. 6, 1941, Gerald Botts, a 21-year-old civilian ironworker employed at Pearl Harbor, went to dance at Waikiki.
When the party was over, he rode a crowded bus back to billets on base. A strange thing happened along the way.
"There was a soldier on the bus who was carrying a big palm leaf. When he got off, he slapped the side of the bus with it. The driver was Japanese.
"He got out and the two of them fought. The driver beat that soldier pretty bad," says Botts, a life-time Wallowa County resident now living in Joseph.
"Sometimes, when I think back on it, I wonder if the soldier knew something was up. I wonder if that's why he started a fight."
Botts was born in the farming village of Flora, in northern Wallowa County, in 1920. The son of George and Ellen Botts, he received elementary education in the Arko and Flora school districts before transferring to Enterprise.
He graduated from high school in 1938 and went to work in an Enterprise grocery store. Later, he moved to Pendleton, worked first for a local grocery, then the state highway department. In June 1941, he landed a job as an ironworker, helping to build the Umatilla Ordnance Plant. He was laid off in October, and then fate took a hand.
"A friend of mine and I went to the union hall to get our ironworker journeyman's cards. While we were there, a guy from (the construction and engineering firm) Morrison-Knudsen came in and hollered, 'Any of you guys want to go to the islands?' We didn't know where the islands were, but we told him we sure wanted to go," Botts recalls.
The Morrison-Knudsen crew boarded a ship in Oakland, Calif., on Oct. 29, arriving in Honolulu three days later. Soon after, it set to work on a multi-story, concrete and steel building on the Pearl Harbor naval base.
Workers were quartered in cottages a few miles from the epicenter of the coming Japanese attack, Battleship Row at Ford Island.
Despite the incident on the bus, there was no real reason to think anything was wrong the night of Dec. 6. Botts and his friends went to bed as usual, sleeping the sleep of innocents. They had no idea that Japanese aircraft carriers, massed about 250 miles north of Oahu, would soon turn into the wind and set loose the first wave of the attack that would pull the United States into World War II.
Even after the bombs started falling - about eight o'clock that Sunday morning - people had a hard time believing war had come. Many, Botts included, mistook the attack for a military exercise scheduled for Dec. 7.
"There were supposed to be maneuvers Sunday morning, a joint exercise with the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Corps. So when the bombs started going off, that's what we thought was going on. The noise woke us up. I decided to go up on the roof and take some pictures of it," Botts says.
Botts and the crew had recently pooled money to buy a camera. He took the camera to the roof, and looking off in the direction of Hickam Air Base, he saw billowing clouds of black smoke. He snapped pictures, still unaware that the "day of infamy" had begun.
"I never knew till I got back downstairs that it was a real attack. Then we heard it on the radio," Botts says.
He and his fellow workers were ordered toward the battle scene. They rode in the back of a truck, traveling on a three-lane highway toward Hickam.
The highway was jammed, traffic moving slowly, from time to time grinding to a halt. The truck was stopped on the highway near the airfield when a Japanese plane came roaring by overhead.
"His guns were blazing, as they say. The attack was about over by this time, and he was one of the last ones to leave. I heard later that he was shot down, but I never did find out if that was true," Botts says.
At Hickam, Botts got his first look at the destruction. He remembers seeing buildings afire, and a B-17 blasted to bits on a runway.
The Morrison-Knudsen workers made their way toward the heart of the base, uncertain of what they would do when they got there. Because they were civilians, it was unclear what role they should play.
"We were just told to do whatever needed to be done," Botts says.
Seven battleships of the Pearl Harbor fleet were docked at Ford Island. All had been hit, heavily damaged or destroyed. Botts witnessed first-hand what subsequent generations saw only in photographs or film clips: ships ablaze, roiling smoke, the Arizona going down in flames, the California slowly sinking, the Oklahoma capsized, many of its crew trapped inside with no way out, and the crippled Nevada trying to make its way out of the harbor.
"The ships were docked in a line around Ford Island, two by two, and they were sitting ducks," Botts says. "The destruction was unbelievable."
The body count wouldn't be completed for a long time, but the numbers turned out to be stunning: there were more than 2,300 dead. One hundred and eighty-eight planes were destroyed, and numerous battleships - the heart and soul of the Pacific Fleet - were either destroyed or heavily damaged.
There were hot smells in the air, smells of sulfur and burning oil.
Thousands of men were wounded, including those badly burned when they had abandoned their ships for the fiery waters of Pearl.
Every available vehicle was pressed into ambulance service, hauling the injured to the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital, Tripler Army Hospital, and other facilities. Mess halls and barracks became hospitals. More casualties were laid out in rows on lawns.
Botts helped in the massive evacuation effort.
"I made one trip on a ferry from Ford Island to Pearl Harbor, helping to carry burned and injured sailors to the hospital," he says.
Blood for transfusions was in short supply. The next order of business for Botts and his companions was to donate. After that, they were put to work filling sandbags for fortifications. In the aftermath of the attack, nearly everyone was sure the Japanese would return.
"I think that was the main thing everybody was concerned about. We expected them to come back, and they were stupid not to. They had us whipped," the Joseph man says.
Botts remained in Hawaii several months, aiding in the recovery effort and helping to complete the building project. Then he returned to his parents' farm in Flora.
In 1943, he was drafted, trained as an Army artilleryman and sent back to the Pacific. There was a stop in Hawaii along the way.
"That was pretty ironic. I made good money on the islands with Morrison-Knudsen, but not in the army. When I went to Hawaii the second time, I was only a private first class - though I got some more rank later," Botts says.
For the remainder of the war, he served in the Pacific as a communications specialist in an anti-aircraft unit. After Japan's defeat he did a stint as a military policeman in Korea.
Upon discharge, he went back to Wallowa County once more, first operating a dry-cleaning service, then going to work for Peterson Lumber (later Boise Cascade). He retired in the 1980s.
The pictures he took of Pearl Harbor in flames, Dec. 7, 1941, didn't survive - sometime after the attack, a Morrison-Knudsen employee destroyed the film.
But throughout his life, Botts never forgot the sight of the ships burning and sinking in the harbor. And he never forgot the feeling he had as he looked upon them that day
"I thought the world was coming to an end," he says.