FAIRFIELD — When the cruiser USS Minneapolis left port for gunnery practice and to serve as the backdrop for some of the filming of the movie “To the Shores of Tripoli,” Arthur Rice was detached to spend the weekend pulling shore duty.
“Each ship in the fleet contributed so many people to Shore Patrol,” Rice said.
Rice was bunking in the concrete Transit Barracks near the submarine base on the southeast corner of Pearl Harbor. The worst he expected from his temporary duty away from the Minneapolis was having to break up a fight or two between sailors blowing off steam in nearby Honolulu.
What he did not expect was to wake up Sunday morning on Dec. 7, 1941, to the snarl of the rotary engines of Japanese naval fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers starting their attacks on the Pacific Fleet anchored in the waters around Ford Island.
Born in rural Alma, Wash., Rice, now retired in Fairfield after serving 37 years with the Navy, joined the Navy when he reached 17 years old to get a better life.
In March 1941, Rice reported to the cruiser USS Minneapolis at Mare Island Navy Shipyard as a seaman first class, serving on one of the vessel’s searchlight batteries.
Rice and the Minneapolis were then sent to join the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor where, on Dec. 7, 1941, Rice was on shore while the Minneapolis was 20 miles offshore.
Seventy-two years after the attack that plunged the United States into World War II, Rice is now one of an estimated 1,500 Pearl Harbor survivors who are still living from about 84,000 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines who lived through the attack.
Before the attack, Rice remembered Honolulu as a Navy town that was “kind of fed up with the Navy.” Any sailors without transportation usually hiked the 6 miles of then-open country between the base and town with few civilians interested in giving sailors a lift.
“After the attack, they would go out of their way to pick you up,” Rice said.
Rice had gotten into his dress whites for Shore Patrol duty that day and was just getting ready for breakfast when the Japanese attacked.
An aircraft buff ever since he was a child, Rice dashed outside to see who was buzzing over the Transit Barracks only to get hit with the stunning realization that the aircraft overhead were Japanese and they were attacking anything in sight, including the Transit Barracks.
“It sounded like a bunch of gravel being thrown,” Rice said of the sound of gunfire pinging off the concrete structure. “I just stood there with my mouth open.”
Rice dashed back into the barracks and then looked back out at the chaos. Not long after, a truck with an officer leaning out the passenger’s door pulled up in front of the barracks to corral Rice and whoever else was around to take them to the recreation area near Aiea Bay on Pearl Harbor’s east side.
“They were bringing most of the wounded and the dead there,” Rice said.
That was where he spent the rest of Dec. 7, tending to wounded. That evening, a large flatbed truck was loaded with coffins to take away the dead.
He and others spent the next day repairing and cleaning up the damage until the Minneapolis re-entered the shattered harbor on Dec. 9 to collect Rice and head out for patrol.
“We went out to sea right away,” Rice said, remembering he sat on the fantail of the Minneapolis watching Honolulu disappear over the horizon.
“We stayed out for a long time. By the time we next got back into port, we had seaweed growing on the hull,” Rice said.
Rice stayed with the Minneapolis through the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway and then went with the Minneapolis to the Solomon Islands to cover both the invasion and the subsequent hard-fought campaign.
The Japanese navy managed to knock the Minneapolis out of the war during the nighttime Battle of Tassafaronga on Nov. 29, 1942, when it soaked up two torpedo hits after sinking a Japanese destroyer.
“It (the blast) threw me up into the air and I came down on all fours,” Rice remembered. “The ship went dead in the water and the USS Pensacola almost rammed us.”
Magnificent damage control and seamanship allowed the Minneapolis to limp to Tulagi, where Rice and the rest of the crew camouflaged the vessel with palm fronds to protect it from air raids.
The cruiser set sail for Mare Island, but Rice was declared surplus crew and dropped off at Espiritu Santo until the Navy ordered him and others onto an old minesweeper named the USS Vireo, whose mission was to tow barges full of aviation gasoline and bombs to Guadalcanal and other islands in the Solomons.
After leaving the Vireo, Rice spent some time at the Navy Yard at Bremerton, Wash., before he was assigned to the escort carrier USS Marcus Island where he became an orderly for the admiral who made the Marcus Island his flagship. Rice served there during the invasion of the Philippines.
Rice ended the war assigned to Naval Air Station Alameda and became a reservist in the Air Force after the war. He was assigned to Hamilton Field, McChord Air Force Base in Washington and then to Travis Air Force Base before being sent to West Germany.
After spending three years in Germany, Rice came back to Travis Air Force Base, where he retired from the service in 1962.
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www,twitter.com/ithompsondr.