SLO County resident was witness to infamy


In hindsight, life was one sweet deal: New homes cost an average of $4,075; you could tootle down the road in a new car that cost $900 plus 12 cents a gallon for gas. And a 15-cent chocolate soda and 25-cent movie was a pretty good date night.

Of course the annual salary was probably in the $1,700 range, but if you were a married man making $2,500 a year and had two dependents, you only paid $6 in income tax. Your congressman took home the princely sum of $10,000 a year.

The year was 1941 and more than half of the nation’s 134 million residents lived in towns of fewer than 50,000 or in rural areas.

One such resident was Earl Cornwell, who had grown up on a 90-acre cotton farm in the San Joaquin Valley, just down the road from the hardscrabble ranch that John Steinbeck would make famous in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Cornwell, now 88, had escaped his father’s cotton fields and joined the Navy, and at the age of 18, found himself based at Ford Island Naval Air Station in Pearl Harbor.

“I’d been at the air station in Hawaii for about eight months before the attack,” the Los Osos resident said of the “date which will live in infamy” — 70 years ago today.

“Attacks just didn’t happen,” added the former San Luis Obispo County superintendent of schools, “but it did.”

Military historians of all stripes can agree on one thing about the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor: Up until 9/11 with its casualty count of about 2,980 dead, Pearl Harbor was considered the most successful sneak attack ever carried out in the history of warfare. Indeed, the chain of events that led to the deaths of 2,388 Americans — another 1,178 were wounded — and the sinking, destruction or damaging of 21 ships and 323 aircraft during a two-hour period that Sunday morning almost defies understanding.

Consider: A fleet of six carriers with more than 400 planes, accompanied by oilers and other support ships, traveled 2,000 miles across the Pacific to within 230 miles of Oahu without being detected.

Although three of the Navy’s aircraft carriers — which the Japanese command wanted the most — were out of port, battleships were lined up side by side to protect the inner ships from possible submarine attacks. But that configuration left them vulnerable to air attack. Army aircraft had been taken out of their hangars at six airfields and lined up wingtip to wingtip on runways where they could be more closely watched for saboteurs; and ammunition for anti-aircraft guns was under lock and key.

“The attack started about 8 a.m. while I was having breakfast with six or eight others,” said Cornwell, who was a seaman 2nd class at the time. The smoke from burning oil on the water was intense, and when the Arizona took a hit to its forward ammo magazine, steel and body parts showered Battleship Row.

“The Nevada started out of the harbor and was hit, then beached,” Cornwell recalled. When it beached, it “cut the water lines and we couldn’t even give cups of water to the men coming off the battleships.

“I loaded up about 30 cases of soda so our men could have something to drink while in sick bay. And then, while standing on a loading dock, I saw something I’ll never forget: A Japanese pilot was coming in low, about 150 feet, probably making another strafing run, and he looked down at me and waved. I don’t know why he did that, maybe he’d been educated in the U.S. before becoming a pilot, but I’ll never forget that.”

The attack was so surprising and devastating in its 110-minute brevity that Cornwell said he wasn’t so much angry as he was concerned about staying alive. The anger came later when he learned that his buddy, Carl Love, the guy who he’d played football against in high school and had enlisted in the Navy with, had been killed when the cruiser Helena had taken a hit.

He stayed on at the air station at Pearl for another two years after the attack. During that time, his brother George, a Marine, was in lead assaults on seven campaigns from Borneo to the Philippines. Another brother, Don, was in the Seabees stationed in Guam. The “Private Ryan” rule that called for at least one family member to be spared from combat didn’t apply to the Cornwell clan for some reason.

“I’m sure my mother spent many hours worrying,” he said of his family’s dedication to service.

Ironically, after earning seven spearhead ribbons for his service, George died in a motorcycle accident a year after the war ended.

Cornwell ended his own service as an aviation ordnanceman 3rd class. He finished school at College of the Pacific in Stockton and received his master’s in education at Fresno State University, courtesy of the G.I. Bill.

He ran for superintendent of schools two years after moving to the Central Coast in 1972, and served in that capacity for eight years. After that, he taught a little at UCLA and Cal Poly, but more or less retired.

Cornwell now finds himself in ever more select company with regard to his World War II service: Of the 60,000 military personnel stationed in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s believed that fewer than 3,000 are left.

And although his wife of 65 years, Virginia, died in July, he has his six kids, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren to “have fun (with) while you can and enjoy life.”