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Pearl Harbor survivor Leland Lester recalls the tragedy

Lester was 19 when he witnessed attack on Pearl Harbor

Published: Monday, Feb. 4, 2013 11:45 a.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Feb. 4, 2013 11:57 a.m. CST

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Imagine being a teenage farm boy from Colfax and witnessing one of the most significant events in American History. Leland Lester was 19 years old and had just joined the Navy when, while aboard the USS Pennsylvania, he saw the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“I was going back to my compartment to finish up my work, when the bomb hit two compartments over from where I was walking,” said Lester. “It just about blew me off my feet. I went ‘What in the heck was that?’ I whirled around and ran onto the starboard bow and just as I stepped out of that hatch, a Japanese fighter went over the top of my head. I could of threw a hand grenade up he was that low.”

Lester immediately realized that they were under a heavy attack.

“When I saw those big red circles on the wings, I knew exactly what it was,” he said. “A Japanese plane. I knew right then that the explosion I had heard was a bomb. At the time I didn’t know that it had hit just two compartments over from me. If I knew it at that time, I think I would have fainted.”

Luckily for Lester, the Pennsylvania was dry docked at the time of the attack do to previous damage while out at sea. The super dreadnaught survived the battle with minimal damage and wound up back out at sea less than two weeks after the attack. But still 15 died in the battle, 14 were missing in action and close to 40 where wounded on his ship alone. More than a thousand U.S. troops were wounded and a little bit over 2400 gave their lives for their that day in total.

Lester still remembers nearly every detail of everything that happened after that initial bombing mroe than 70 years later and at 91 years of age.

“I was not a bit afraid, all during the whole battle. When I saw that Japanese plane, I knew what was happening,” he said. “And my gun was behind me. I uncovered the gun and trained the gun out into firing position before they sent out the general quarters (alarm). I was already on my spot and had my headphones on and when our gun captain came out, he said, ‘Who in the hell did this?’. I said, ‘I did.’. He said, ‘When?’ and I said, ‘Right after something right about blowed me off my feet.’”

Although he was not a gun operator his actions helped his gun crew prepare to strike back at the enemy forces, he even said that the same captain thanked him after the battle for “using his head.”

“I believe that our gun was the first gun to fire back,” said Lester. “I didn’t have anything to do with operating the gun, but I had headphones taking the readings from the counting tar on what to set the fuses (at). We had nothing but target practice ammunition, it wasn’t worth a damn. Wasn’t a bit good, it had to make a direct hit to do any damage. And that’s all we had to fire with.”

Even without proper ammunition the brave seamen aboard the ship fought back valiantly. Lester say’s the battle was only “about two hours” but his resolve kept him fearless until the end.

“Of course we stayed on our guns all day and all night,” he said. “And we never had anything to eat. From the morning the attack was on, but we had nothing to eat until 4 o’clock Monday morning. And the cooks brought big pots of baked beans and big platters of corn bread.”

Having survived what President Franklin Roosevelt called, “a date which will live in infamy” Lester is extremely proud of his entire 16-year military career. He donates to the American Legion and the VFW and recently received a Gold Circle Award from the VFW. And in 1995, while in his 70s, he began to give talks to elementary schools about his time in the service. Locally he has visited schools across Jasper County, the Newton Hy-Vee and a few churches. The former high school drop out who said, ‘The Navy taught me how to use my brain.’ even received an honorary high school diploma from Colfax Community High School in 2000, almost 70 years after he dropped out at 17.

Lester also recently attended a Pearl Harbor Survivors Reunion in San Diego. He estimates there probably are only about seven Pearl Harbor survivors left in Iowa.

“It’s a day I’ll never forget as long as I live,” said Lester. “The fact is I wasn’t a bit afraid all during the whole battle, until it quieted down. I looked at the structure all above my head and saw where all the bullets had been hitting us and scraping us. That’s when I started shaking like a leaf,” he said jokingly.

Staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 426, or at

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