Witness to history Gooding man recalls seeing Pearl Harbor attack in person
Pearl Harbor veteran David Ray Roessler, 89, of Gooding is reflected in the frame of a photo of him taken in Hawaii in 1940 while he was serving in the Army. Roessler was serving with the 24th Division Signal Office at Schofield Barracks on the morning of the attack on Dec. 7, 1941. (ASHLEY SMITH/Times-News)

David Ray Roessler was there. The Gooding resident, now 88, is now one of a handful of Magic Valley residents who actually witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that led to the U.S.’s entrance into World War II, 68 years ago.

He argues his memory’s not quite what it used to be. But start up a conversation with him and the tales of a time long past return.

Roessler was chief clerk of the U.S. Army’s 24th Division Signal Office, based out of Schofield Barracks, when the Japanese paid their visit to Hawaii.

Sound asleep, he awakened on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, to the sound of a plane going down. Running out of the barracks, he saw about 16 two-seat Japanese planes bombing Wheeler Field about two miles away.

Roessler recalls the course of the day in small vignettes. Rushing across a bare field to report to duty, he emptied his .45-caliber handgun at a Japanese plane just 50 feet above him.

“You knew it wouldn’t do any good,” he says today. “But it made you feel better.”

He remembers watching B-17 bombers try to land in the midst of the attack, unarmed planes that simply needed to fuel up. And he was at 24th Division headquarters, he says, when someone brought in proof that one of the attacking planes had been brought down — the hand of a Japanese gunner, still holding the handle of his machine gun. Two men had shot the plane down using a Browning Automatic Rifle.

Of course, Roessler’s memories include much more than just that fateful day. There was the time just before the attack when he served as the telephone runner for two Japanese ambassadors who visited Schofield and were treated to a full parade. There was Dec. 8, 1941, when he and his fellow soldiers sat around radios and listened to President Franklin Roosevelt ask Congress to declare war against Japan.

And there were the days afterward, when Hawaii was placed under martial law. Roessler remembers that as a confused, chaotic time. Both the military and civilians were scared, he says, and panicked civilians even killed several military guards.

“If they said halt, you’d better halt, or they’d shoot if it was at night,” he says of the guards. “It was rough there for about two weeks.”

Roessler stayed posted at Hawaii for some time, indirectly participating in many events of the war. During early morning calisthenics at Scholfield, for example, he says he watched a B-17 “all shot to heck” at the Battle of Midway fly overhead, preparing to land.

In 1943, he became part of a handful of new joint-assault signal companies sent island-hopping in the Pacific Ocean. He participated in landings on Leyte, Luzon and Okinawa, “always in the first or third wave,” he says.

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He left Okinawa in June 1945 as one of about 1,200 men who qualified to be discharged under a point system. But, if not for the development and use of the atomic bomb, he likely would have been called back in he says. The bombs and Japan’s subsequent surrender removed the need for a costly, comprehensive invasion of the nation itself.

“My company was one of the first units that would’ve been on the invasion,” he says.

He stayed in touch with his fellow Pearl Harbor survivors over the year, eventually serving as secretary of the regional chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. The chapter, started in 1979, had to be shut down a few years ago for lack of members, he says; in the Magic Valley, he’s only aware of about five survivors still around.

“They’re just all gone,” he says.

He’s happy to share the information in the vast records he kept from the war while he can. But he also realizes the eventual fate of his stories, just like the tales of World War I before it.

“After the war, years later, people don’t realize what they did, you know,” he says of that earlier conflict. “The same thing has happened with Pearl Harbor.”

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