John W. Lawhon was born April 19, 1920, in Florence County, South Carolina. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1938 with boot camp at Norfolk, Virginia. Shortly after, he was transferred to the USS Phelps.
His diary for December 7, 1941 read: “Japs attack Pearl Harbor. (Phelps) got official credit for two planes. I’d bet any amount of money Mother is worried about me.” Lawhon recounts that, “at the time of the December 7 attack, I was a gunner’s mate aboard USS Phelps, DD360. She was the flagship for Destroyer Squadron One. We were tied up alongside a Destroyer Tender at the first buoy north of (Ford Island) Naval Air Station. The first thing I saw was a plane diving into NAS. It went right through the hanger and exploded. I heard a machine gun start firing and I knew what was happening. My first job at battle stations was to go to the Captain’s cabin and get magazine keys to unlock forward magazines. Then I went to forward 1.1 gun mount and started helping. With ready ammunition below the gun, we started firing right away. We took one under fire who was flying in front of us. I could see the shells hitting and exploding. He slowly went down and crashed in a sugar cane field. (We were restricted in our firing because we had ships tied up alongside both sides of us).”
“One plane was coming in broadside—the destroyer tied up alongside us had time to fire one 5” shell and it must have hit him right in the engine as I saw it explode and just a few pieces hit the water. I could not see the Arizona blow up (about 500 yards away), but I could feel it, and all the other battleships that were being hit. Another plane dropped a bomb and missed us about 50 feet aft of our ship. The ship shook just like it did from the battleships’ explosions. We were almost out of 1.1 ammo. I had to go down in the forward magazine and get more. While I was coming back to my station, the ship tied up next to us fired a 5” round directly above my head. It blew cork from the powder case all over me. I was shaking so when I got back to my gun, I could hardly load the 1.1 rounds into the clips.”
“We were in nearly all the engagements in the first year in the Pacific because we were the only Navy task force in the Pacific during that time. In the spring of 1943, I was transferred to CVE 55, USS Casablanca. When we came back from Guadalcanal, they sent us to Mare Island for a long overhaul. The first night back, we anchored almost beneath the Oakland Bay Bridge. There were autos and trains on the bridge and there were lights everywhere. I had not seen lights at night for almost a year except from lightning or gun flashes—sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. The thought hit me what a great free nation we live in. Other countries don’t know what it means to be free. But a great price has been paid for our freedom. I believe it was Thomas Jefferson who said it would have to be defended from time to time, and that is what I would like to impart on the next generations.”
After the war, John came out of the Navy and continued life with his wife and new baby daughter. At John’s death on February 2, 2012, at age 91, his family had extended to daughter, son-in-law, two granddaughters and grandson-in-law, three great granddaughters and one great grandson. He was very proud of his family and his service to his country. As his daughter, I am blessed with my true “HERO” and the best “DAD” ever.
Submitted by Carolyn Sparks and published in Pearl Harbor Remembered, Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of December 7, 1941 with the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors, Inc., M.T. Publishing Company, Inc., 2016.