War stories

It’s the 64th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Bob Addobati is among the dwindling ranks of survivors.

“I always felt I saw the first plane,” said Pearl Harbor survivor and Sacramento resident Bob Addobati. He was an 18-year-old sailor on “battleship row” in Pearl Harbor when Japanese planes attacked on December 7, 1941. The attack shocked the nation and brought America into World War II. It also changed the direction of Addobati’s life.

“I’ve always said I joined the Navy to eat,” Addobati explained. “I came from a family of 11 people, and things were very rough during the Depression.” To make matters worse, his father died when Addobati was 12 years old.

The Navy gave him an escape from poverty and left his family back home with one less mouth to feed. He became a signalman on the USS Solace, a hospital ship with the Pacific Fleet based in Hawaii. “I loved Hawaii,” said Addobati. “It was just a beautiful place to be stationed.”

On the night before the attack, as Japanese aircraft carriers moved into position north of Oahu, Addobati attended a “battle of the bands” at a Pearl Harbor nightclub. The bands were made up of sailors from the battleships—the winners were from the USS Arizona.

Late that night, Addobati returned to the Solace to begin his watch on the quarterdeck. He was scheduled to be relieved at 7:45 that quiet Sunday morning, but his relief was late. At 7:55, he saw a plane. “It came right over and dropped something, and there was an explosion. It dropped a bomb near the battleship California. In a matter of a couple of minutes, there were planes all over, dive bombers, torpedo planes and fighters.”

Bombs or torpedoes hit every battleship in the harbor. Most of the planes at a nearby airfield were destroyed or damaged before they could take off. The Arizona took a direct hit in its ammunition magazine, killing more than 1,000 men.

The stunned crew of the Solace swung into action. “I immediately got into the motor launch, a 40-foot motor launch. We began going back and forth to battleship row, picking up the wounded, picking sailors up out of the water. Most of the wounded were from burns in the water; the oil from the battleships was all over the water, and it was on fire. All during the attack, the planes were right over us, still bombing.”

Addobati continued the rescue and recovery work for 48 hours. “A lot of the wounded that we took back to the Solace had died, and that evening we took the dead to the fleet landing. The bodies were just stacked up like cordwood on the landing.”

The attack killed more than 2,400 Americans. Twenty-one ships, including eight battleships, were sunk or damaged. But somehow, the Solace was unscathed, and it spent the entire war following American fighting forces across the Pacific, tending to the wounded.

In May 1945, Addobati joined the ranks of the wounded. Following a torpedo attack, Addobati was attempting to secure a drifting barge during a typhoon. “I went over the side and got between the boat and a barge and got my leg crushed. I ended up right back from where I started from, Pearl—a hospital at Pearl.” They amputated his left leg.

The Navy sent Addobati on to Mare Island in San Francisco Bay. “Mare Island was a big naval hospital; it was the amputee center for Marines and the Navy. There must have been 500 amputees there.” Surprisingly, he described his year of rehabilitation as “one of the best years of my life.”

The war ended in August 1945, and the returning vets were adored by the public. Addobati and his friends at the Mare Island hospital discovered that special treatment was afforded to the wounded. “We’d go ashore every night to San Francisco—that was our rehabilitation, to go ashore and just have a great time. We were going to the finest hotels in San Francisco and having dinner at the greatest restaurants in town, and we knew somebody would pick up the tab—we didn’t have a dime.”

Sixty years later, Addobati is still in touch with two friends from Mare Island. “They’re both Marines. One is in Dallas, and one in Jacksonville, Fla. The Marine in Jacksonville calls me every December 7, which is Pearl Harbor Day, and I call him every February to wish him a happy Iwo Jima Day.”

To this day, he gets around with the help of a prosthetic leg, which he operates with remarkable grace. Despite his disability, Addobati returned to sea two years after being discharged. “I got a waiver from the Navy and went back to sea again on transports during the Korean War. I did about seven years with the Military Sea Transport Service,” he said.

He made Sacramento his home in 1950 and began a 25-year career with the postal service in 1956. In 1965, Addobati started the local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. “We have about 80 members now—we used to have about 180. There’re about 15, at the most, that we ever see. We get together for lunch every month, but a lot of the fellows have passed away.” Addobati and his fellow veterans are often seen in parades dressed in their “uniforms”: Hawaiian shirts, white pants and shoes, and caps embroidered with the words “Pearl Harbor Survivors.”

Addobati has three children and eight grandchildren; he hopes that none of them will fight in a war. Like many of his local group, he’s troubled by the war in Iraq. “I agree with that congressman from Pennsylvania that says we ought to get out of there,” he said.

Four years ago, Addobati visited the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. He describes it as “probably the most emotional place you’ll ever see.” He plans to visit the memorial again for the 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.