Key point: The USS Pennsylvania shot down 6 planes during the surprise Japanese attack.
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Gunner’s Mate Russell Winsett, 19, awoke at 5 am as he did most mornings. As he went topside he could see that the weather was like almost every December day in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, sunny blue skies with a few white puffy clouds.
This was a day Winsett was looking forward to. He thought to himself, “It’s gonna be a beautiful day to visit the island with my cousin, his wife, and three kids.” Winsett had met his relative William Pope several months earlier when his family wrote and told him that he had a distant cousin also stationed at Pearl Harbor. Winsett had found the ship William was serving on, contacted him, and they met for a short visit. The next day his cousin went on a two-month cruise. Winsett was looking forward to reconnecting with his family member and getting to meet his wife and kids while taking in the sights of Hawaii. It was a long way from home for this Alabama farm boy.
Winsett graduated from high school in 1939 and began working on the family farm. His oldest brother had already joined the Army. In 1940, Russell started thinking of life off the farm. “It was a good life, but I didn’t like the back breaking work of farming in the heat,” he said of his childhood in the little town of Hamilton in northwest Alabama. “I was simply tired of using a mule’s ass for a compass. So one day, me [sic] and two other buddies decided that we would join the Navy. We drove to the recruiting station over in Florence. During the medical exam they found something in my kidneys they didn’t like, so they took my two buddies immediately, but sent me home with instructions on how to cure myself. Two weeks later I went back, and they passed me that time.”
Winsett never saw his two buddies after that but found out later that both of them lost their lives during the war. He was soon off to boot camp in Norfolk, Virginia. After boot camp he took a five-day train trip to Bremerton, Washington, to join the crew of the battleship USS Pennsylvania. “Back then you didn’t have all the specialized training they do with sailors today. You learned by getting on ship and having the chief watch over you.”