Wednesday, July 20, 2005 By James GonserAdvertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
Joseph DeMattos Sr. was 15 years old when he climbed a papaya tree in his family's Kaimuki yard to see smoke rising from Pearl Harbor.
It was Dec. 7, 1941, and the U.S. Pacific fleet was under surprise attack at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy. Of the 96 warships in the harbor that day, 18 of the major ships were sunk or damaged.
DeMattos couldn't see the attack clearly, but if he had, he would have seen shipyard workers such as George Walters pitching in to help the Marines and sailors save lives and ships. As Japanese planes attacked, Walters ran his traveling crane back and forth on its track, shielding the USS Pennsylvania, Cassin and Downes from low-flying attack planes.
Many of the shipyard workers, including Walters, were cited for their actions during and after that day.
It was a defining moment in U.S. history, and it was a defining moment for the shipyard workers, who soon after adopted the motto "We Keep Them Fit to Fight" when it came to keeping the Pacific fleet in working order.
Two years later, DeMattos wanted to join the Army to do his part for the war effort, but he was too young. Instead, he joined the shipyard workforce, which by then had more than tripled because of the war efforts. At its peak, about 25,000 workers were employed at the shipyard, which opened in 1908.
DeMattos became a mechanic, working for 73 cents an hour. His uncle John Kaaihue was a welder.
"Remember, we were at war," said DeMattos, 80, who recounts how he worked with crews that were dedicated and determined to the do the job right the first time. "The ship went out and you want it coming back. If you made a mistake or goofed up, the ship wouldn't be coming back."
Within three months of the attack, shipyard workers put back into service three battleships, three cruisers, two destroyers and two other vessels. The battleship USS Arizona could not be refloated and its hull remains in the harbor as a memorial to the tragic events.
DeMattos spent 54 years and nine months working in the harbor, retiring in 1998.
Peter Fontanilla, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents most of the shipyard workers, is himself a second-generation shipyard worker - the son of a machinist. He said some workers go back three or even four generations.
"My father used to tell me about the work they used to do," he said. "They felt proud working on ships."
Fontanilla said Pearl Harbor will forever be a historic location, but it is the efforts of the workers that keep it viable.
"There is a lot of history in the yard. The name itself is historic," he said. "The workers have a lot of pride and try to do a good job as fast as they can. We're managing for years and years, and we will continue on for years and years."
DeMattos, a Wai'anae resident, said that because of its strategic location in the Pacific and the potential for more conflict in Asia, it is important to keep the Pearl Harbor shipyard running.
"Right now we are talking about Iraq and everything is on the Atlantic Ocean side," he said. "But remember WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, so you've got three wars associated with the Pacific. I don't think Asia is going to be at peace forever.
"We were caught with our pants down on Dec. 7, and I don't think we should be again, ever. We should learn from our mistakes. We have a valuable shipyard and it is doing its job."
PEARL HARBOR AND ITS SHIPYARD THROUGH HISTORY
- 1789 British Capt. Nathaniel Portlock wrote the first published description of Pearl Harbor, so named because of the pearl oysters found in its waters.
- 1887 A pact between King Kalakaua and the United States gives rights to establish a coaling and repair station in the harbor.
- 1891 President Benjamin Harrison urges Congress to develop and improve Pearl Harbor as a naval station as the country's strategic interests expanded into the Pacific.
- 1908 A congressional appropriations act of May 13 authorizes nearly $3 million to establish the Pearl Harbor Yard.
- 1912 Dredging the entrance channel is completed.
- 1913 The first dry dock collapses, but no one is injured. In August, the naval station moves from Honolulu to its new quarters in Pearl Harbor.
- 1919 Construction of the first dry dock is completed.
- 1939 An executive order establishes the harbor as a naval defensive area; only vessels approved by the base commander can enter.
- 1941 Aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy bomb the harbor on Dec. 7. The attack brings the U.S. into World War II.
- 1941-43 As the U.S. goes to war in the Pacific, shipyard production is tripled and more than 7,000 major repairs are done during the war. Dry docks Nos. 2, 3 and 4 are completed.
- 1942 The war-damaged carrier USS Yorktown limps into the harbor and is returned to service in just three days to influence the Battle of Midway.
- 1943 Shipyard workforce peaks at 24,910.
- 1964 Pearl Harbor is named a national landmark and subsequently placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- 2003 Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility are merged with several smaller units and commands to become Hawai'i's regional maintenance center.
- 2005 The harbor survives a vote by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission that would have added the Hawai'i shipyard to the Pentagon's list of recommended military base closures.