Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: A talented musician, his life cut short

A young musician who grew up in Arroyo Grande was one of the first to die when the USS Arizona was bombed by the Japanese 69 years ago today.

Musician Second Class Jack Leo Scruggs, a trombone player, was up early that Dec. 7 morning, as all the bands on battleship row in Pearl Harbor were readying for an 8 a.m. colors ceremony and playing of the National Anthem.

Scruggs’ United States Navy Band 22 excelled. Champions in earlier competitions, they had defeated the Marine Corps band in the semi-final of the Pacific fleet’s “Battle of the Bands” just a month earlier, in November 1941.

The Japanese attack began at 7:55. Scruggs was near the stern of the Arizona moments later when the first bombs straddled the big ship. Lt. Cmdr. Samuel G. Fuqua describes the moment in his after-action report:“I was in the ward room eating breakfast about 0755 when a short signal on the ship’s air raid alarm was made. I immediately went to the phone and called the officer of the deck to sound general quarters and then shortly thereafter ran up to the starboard side of the quarter deck to see if he had received word.

“On coming out of the ward room hatch on the port side, I saw a Japanese plane go by, the machine guns firing, at an altitude of about 100 feet. As I was running forward on the starboard side of the quarter deck, approximately by the starboard gangway, I was apparently knocked out by the blast of a bomb, which I learned later had struck the face plate of the No. 4 turret on the starboard side and had glanced off and gone through the deck just forward on the captain’s hatch, penetrating the decks and exploding on the third deck.”

The explosion killed three Arizona band members instantly, blowing their bodies into the harbor. One of them was 22-year-old Scruggs.

Scruggs’ band mates lived only moments longer. They were at their general quarters action stations, as ammunition loaders for the Arizona’s main armament (the 14-inch guns in the forward No. 2 turret).

The fatal blow struck at 8:10.  Dropped by Imperial Navy Petty Officer Noburo Kanai, a 1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb penetrated the Arizona’s deck near the No. 2 turret and detonated below decks in the powder magazine. The explosion lifted the 31,000-ton ship completely out of the water. She would settle and burn for two days.  

Navy Band 22 was wiped out in a moment of violence so powerful that the Naval Academy ring of Rear Adm. Isaac J. Kidd, who flew his flag on the Arizona, was found fused to a bulkhead.

Scruggs, in a happier time, had played “Happy Birthday” on his accordion for Kidd’s wife.

Scruggs had grown up in Arroyo Grande in a family that loved music.

On a website that pays tribute to the great ship (1,100 of her crew died in the attack), Scruggs’ younger sister, Pauline Scruggs Ellis, recalls that both parents sang. Scruggs began his musical education on the piano, and began learning the trombone at age 12.

During his high school years in Long Beach, Ellis describes her brother as a young man enchanted with the Big Band sound. He formed his own dance band and would listen intently and obsessively to swing records to teach himself musical arrangement.

Ellis discusses Scruggs’ decision to enter the Navy: “Along with all of the young men, Jack registered for the draft. He was not looking forward to serving in the Army, and wanting to further his musical education, applied to the Navy School of Music. He was accepted and looked forward to what he thought would be two years at the school and four years in the Navy.

“Jack arrived at the school in December 1940 and was sent to Norfolk. After boot camp, he reported to the school to start his training of different musical subjects as well as private lessons on the piano and trombone. He played in the band and dance band. He soon sent home for his accordion and played that quite a bit, since all the pianos were being taken off the ships.”

In May 1941, the newly graduated United States Navy Band 22 left Norfolk to be assigned to the Arizona, doubtlessly excited at the prospect of a berth in Hawaii.   

Scruggs and his fellow musicians in that band were considered so good that they probably would have won the “Battle of the Bands.” That final competition was scheduled for Dec. 20, 1941.

Jim Gregory is a teacher at Arroyo Grande High School.