By Gail McCarthy
---- — Delar “Dane” vanSand of Gloucester, now 95, was serving as a Navy ensign aboard a battleship 72 years ago today.
The ship? The U.S.S. Nevada.
The port? Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where vanSand was about to live through one of the longest and most trying days in U.S. History.
The surprise Sunday morning attack by Japanese aircraft left 2,390 people dead and wounded more than 1,000 others, and propelled a nation that wanted to stay out of European affairs into what – a day later — would become the second World War. A day after the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States declared war on Dec. 8, 1941.
Although the assault lasted less than two hours, the trauma of its aftermath lasts a lifetime. While VanSand escaped without injury, he said those memories never fade, like all who face combat and who witness death so close and in such numbers.
“You don’t ever get over it, and that will be true of the guys fighting now,” said VanSand, who was born in Manhattan six days before the end of World War I on Nov. 5, 1918.
His daughter, Sigrid Olsen, a noted artist, knows the story well, about how her father was on the only ship that got underway that fateful morning.
“It always seemed a miracle to me that he was there and survived, because the thought of Pearl Harbor always conjures up the massive losses and to think he survived was amazing to us,” she said. “We were all grateful because if he hadn’t survived, we wouldn’t be here -- me, my siblings and my kids!”
In recent years, VanSand has started to put those stories from pen to paper for his children and grandchildren, “so they know who their ancestor was,” he said.
Passing it on
“Even my family doesn’t know some of the stories, and they have a right to know the details,” he added.
VanSand, who still has a full head of silvery white hair, told his story both in an interview with the Times on Thursday as well as through some of his writings that he shared.
VanSand was raised in New York City. He attended Yale University, studying international diplomacy, and graduated in 1940. Soon after, he joined the Navy, and he was assigned to a battleship, the U.S.S Nevada BB36, when she was docked in Bremerton, Washington.
“My job in the yard was to line up the barrels of the two guns with the aiming sights. After doing this chore for many times, I got bored. One day I asked the engineering officer if I could have a look at the engines. He smiled a wolfish smile and said ‘Of course.’ The next thing I knew I was transferred to the engineering department as a junior officer in the boiler section,” he wrote.
Then the U.S.S. Nevada was ordered to Hawaii, which led he and his mates to thoughts of heavenly beaches, warm weather and girls. But he noted that the gunnery officer kept the men “hopping” with countless drills at sea. Little did they know that before long they would be called upon to use that training when Japanese bombers descended upon an unsuspecting naval base at the far western border of the United States in the Pacific Ocean.
Standing at attention
On that Sunday morning on Dec. 7, 1941, VanSand recalls standing at attention as the Stars and Stripes was raised to the music of the national anthem. It only signaled the start of what would become known as America’s “Day of Infamy.”
“The band started playing faster and faster. We said to each other ‘These guys are in a hurry to get ashore,’ “ he wrote. “Then the loudspeaker ordered everyone to their battle stations. Grumbling, we went to our battle stations. ... As we went, one of the recent recruits came running down to the boiler rooms shouting, ‘It’s war -- the (Japanese) are attacking!’ ...”
“The loudspeaker squawked, ‘We are being attacked by planes of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Get up steam. We are getting under way!’ ”
The crew got steam up in 13 minutes.
“The normal time for this operation took four hours,” he wrote. “I looked up at the steam pipes anxiously for signs of steam leaks in the gaskets between the sections of pipes (three feet in diameter). They held. I offered up a sincere prayer — and thanks to the makers of those gaskets.”
VanSand recalled that the battleship shook with the explosions from the Japanese bombs and the firing of the battleship’s anti-aircraft guns. The bombings caused flashback of the fires in the boilers, which burned the men manning them. He and others in the control station busied themselves treating those burns.
While vanSand he was below, his shipmates told him about the men swimming back to the ship through the oil burning on the surface of the salt water. Those men had to duck under the flames and splash the water ahead of them to try to push the flames away.
Sights and sounds
“Finally the noise of battle subsided. But the effects of battle remained,” he wrote.
“The ship was aground, and I will never forget the sight,” he wrote. “Blood flowing three-inches thick and a foot wide, flowing in the scuppers being washed overboard by the fire hoses to clear the blood from the deck so that men carrying ammunition would not slip and fall causing explosions.”
On deck, he saw the human carnage.
“Bodies of my shipmates were stacked like cordwood,” he wrote. “(There was) Shock. I didn’t have time to stop.”
Some of these men, van Sand recalled Thursday night, were boxers he trained when he was a boxing coach in peace time.
“We continued to fight the fires and kept filling the anti-aircraft guns firing at the remaining Japanese bombers, but mostly we were fighting our own fires and washing down the blood,” he said. “I learned from the crewmen that once we got under way and were proceeding in the channel, a special group of Japanese bombers attacked, desperately trying to sink the battleship in the channel so nobody else could get out of the harbor. But they didn’t succeed because we were ordered to run aground.”
Oil on the harbor
The crew, meanwhile, were pulling survivors from the still-burning surface oil all over the harbor.
“They were being helped by several tugboats pouring water from the depths of the harbor,” he said. “They are the ones you see in the movies, crowded around the bow of the grounded battleship — which is the Nevada.”
VanSand was on active duty for about six years, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander. Before the war, VanSand had a vision to enter the diplomatic corps. After the war, that dream faded.
“I tried all kinds of things. Like so many veterans who come home, we flip-flop around a lot after the war,” he said. “My combat was at sea, and a lot of guys had a much rougher life in the infantry. But the guys I met all have the same post-war reaction. They don’t talk about it.”
Eventually, van Sand settled into work as a news reel cameraman, joined the cinematographers’ union, and started a family. He is also an artist.
Sigrid Olsen, one of four children, said that, by the time of the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1991, her father’s story was a well-told part of the family history. Her father took three generations of his family – his wife, children and grandchildren – to Hawaii to participate in the 50th reunion.
While the anniversary of the world-changing event sparks emotion, VanSand is known for his good nature and strong spirit, which are infectious.
“He’s a cheerful guy and he’s really remarkable,” said Olsen. “We’re very proud of him and we just love him. The grandchildren love their grandfather and now he has great-grandchildren.
“We respect him because he has integrity,” she said. “He’s a real authentic guy. I love that he is as comfortable going to the opera as he is going to the local bar and shooting the breeze with the locals. He’s uplifting to be around.”
Mark Kanegis, a Rockport fine art photographer, knows well the friendly nature of the nonagenarian. He sees him swimming regularly at the Cape Ann YMCA and recently learned of his war experiences.
“He’s quick with a friendly smile,” he said, “and the passion for life still twinkles in his eyes.”
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.