History never forgotten
Ed Vezey’s survival on Dec. 7, 1941 spurs his efforts to educate children about those lost long ago
By Traci Chapman
It was a day that would literally change the world and its future, but for Edward Vezey, it started out as a quiet Sunday in a tropical paradise.
Ed and his roommate, Frank, were lounging in their bunks. It was a little before 8 a.m. and the captain had given the men the day off, so they had a big decision to make, Ed said.
“We were deciding – should we eat breakfast before going swimming or vice versa,” Ed said. “Suddenly there was the call to man the anti-aircraft batteries, and we couldn’t believe it was on a Sunday morning.”
The date was Dec. 7, 1941. The place was the USS Oklahoma, berthed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Even with the unusual announcement, Ed and Frank didn’t at first have an inkling what was about to happen, Ed said. Stopping to get dressed first, there was a change of plans with a second, more urgent, announcement. It was suddenly very clear – “This was real,” he said.
“I grabbed my pistol, put on my moccasins and my brand new cap and each of us headed for our battle stations, Frank to his bug gun turret and me topside to the AA battery control station on the foremast,” Ed said.
By this time, the ship was already shuddering from torpedo hits, Ed said. Little did he know in less than 15 minutes, his friend would be among 2,403 Americans killed in a surprise attack that also meant the end of one of the Navy’s greatest battleships, the USS Arizona.
When they ran to their battle stations that morning, it was their battle stations that likely determined their fate. Frank was headed to the big gun turret, while Ed was stationed in the AA battery control station, located on the foremast. The Oklahoma had been at sea and had fired gunnery practice, but that Sunday morning, all of the ammunition was stored before deck in anticipation of a planned inspection, Ed said. As senior officer of his group and with the Oklahoma’s extreme list, there was no choice but to abandon ship, he said. Ed literally followed the Oklahoma over as it keeled over and sunk. He ended up standing on the bottom of the massive ship.
“In five minutes, she was sinking and the people who were going to make it had about 12 minutes to get topside,” Ed said. “There are no drills to prepare for a ship that’s rolling over.”
The men with Frank said he stayed in the gun turret holding a flashlight could see to escape. Ed never saw him again. Unlike Ed, who was able to swim away from the dying Oklahoma, Frank would not make it out.
“I survived and I never forgot who he was and what he gave so others could escape,” Ed said. “Just a few minutes later I was on the USS Maryland, bare naked except for a heavy coating of heavy fuel oil, having lost my pajama pants while swimming to the Maryland.”
As he stood there seeing the devastation the Japanese attack left behind, Ed said he was a different person, a transformation that had occurred in just a few minutes. He was lucky, though – 429 of his shipmates, including Frank, would not survive. The Oklahoma would remain where it sunk, as did the Arizona, both becoming the resting place and a memorial to the men who had died.
“I had gone from a carefree youngster to a hardened survivor, seething with anger and hatred, no clothes, no money, no wallet, no ID, most of my friends dead and total chaos in every direction,” Ed said.
Ed’s survival at Pearl Harbor was just part of a long four years of service during World War II. He served throughout the war at Guadalcanal and throughout the South Pacific. He was “shelled, strafed and shot at,” but he finally made it home. No matter where he went, though, he said part of him remained where it all began, at Pearl Harbor.
“I cannot say I have ever really recovered and every year when I go back to Pearl the old anger wells up in tears of fury,” Ed said.
That was 72 years ago. Ed is now 94 and lives in Moore; he is now the last USS Oklahoma survivor still living in Oklahoma.
Frank was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that morning. Although he’s been gone more than seven decades, Ed thinks about Frank every day, he said. And he’s lived his life to the fullest, knowing that Frank never had that chance.
During those 72 years, Ed’s had a lot of luck and a happy life. He married, raised seven children and worked for General Electric for more than 57 years. He retired when he was 85, Vezey said.
“It was finally time,” he said.
But no matter where he went or what he did, Ed said he carried the events of Dec. 7, 1941 with him. Time didn’t dull that pain and anger, nor did it lessen his need to acknowledge the sacrifice of those who died that day, he said. Each December he travels to reunite with the dwindling number of survivors who make the pilgrimage to honor and remember their lost friends and a different world.
“It’s comforting to be there and spend time with our old friends,” Ed said.
As time has gone by those visits have meant a time to reminisce and have fun, but he’s also pushed to talk about the experience so children and youth know how important that day in December, so long ago, really is, Ed said. He helped raise money for Norman North High School’s band could travel to Pearl Harbor and perform in the memorial celebration.
“Would you believe all 140 members of the Norman North band plus 30 or so sponsors were there,” Ed wrote in a letter to friends after his December 2013 trip, made with his granddaughter, Rebekah. A nurse herself, Rebekah was her grandfather’s traveling companion and found Pearl Harbor and its history fascinating, Ed said.
“With her vigor and zest for life she turned a reunion of four old men into a great party,” he said. “I discouraged her coming because I thought she would be totally bored.”
That wasn’t the case at all. And Ed’s story has captivated many others.
That included students at Mustang Trails Elementary, which he traveled to late last year. Ed spoke to the children about his experience and shared the importance of Frank and men like him, he said. It was part of his ongoing mission, something he would continue to do as long as he could.
“My whole purpose is to keep kids aware that freedom isn’t free,” Ed said. “We have a job to do.
“Life is a great adventure – keep hold with both hands and keep pedaling,” he said.