Courage in Action:
A Sailor’s Story
James Allard Vessels of Paducah
On December 7th, 1941, a calm Sunday morning, two shipmates were playing a card game known as Acey-Deucey in a little enclosure,built at the top of the superstructure at the very highest point of the battleship USS Arizona. They were stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii…waiting for time to go to early morning Mass. The skies were a heavenly blue, with white fluffy clouds scudding alongside their elevated perch. It was precisely 7:55 when they heard the drone of aircraft approaching.
One of the men, Allard Vessels, had been born on St Patrick’s Day, 1920. His childhood sweetheart, Anita Hodges, was also a Catholic; both had relatives and friends that hailed from Fancy Farm and Paducah. As a youngster, Allard treated Anita and her cousin to penny candy from the corner store. It was understood that she was his best girl; and it was inevitable that the two would fall in love as they grew older.
Anita received her engagement ring one Sunday after Allard has enlisted in the Navy and came to be stationed at Pearl. He was not yet 23, she was a shy 20. It was delivered to her by Allard's mother at church one Sunday morning. That afternoon Anita turned on their family’s radio and discovered that a happy occasion can take a dramatic turn very quickly. Pearl Harbor had been bombed early that morning by Japanese pilots, who had taken the whole incredulous Naval base by surprise. Anita did not know whether Allard was alive or dead, and no information was to be obtained, except the garbled, and many times, incorrect reports that were trickling through.
At the time of the attack, Allard and his shipmate were caught by surprise. They were high enough off the deck of the Arizona to see the faces of the pilots as they flew smiling past them, the red rising sun insignia of the Japanese empire shining upon their sleek bombers. Allard and his friend started hurrying down the ladders, heading towards the deck of the ship. Caught between strafing bullets and 800kg horizontal bombs that were being dropped to the decks below, they clung crazily to the steel ladders, missing death by just seconds. The ship literally blew up, rising out of the water with the force of the blast before settling back into the water. The ship started sinking immediately. Allard and his friend scurried down the ladders to destruction beyond their wildest imagination.
Men boiled up out of the ship, many still in their skivvies, and some of the luckier ones reached the decks…just as sirens went off all at once. Most men never made it to safety. Confusion reigned; officers were yelling orders, and Allard and many others were making beelines for their battle stations, only to find there was no ammunition. The decision was made to carry some of their badly wounded comrades to a motor launch that had been secured to the ship. Time was of the essence; the boat was rowed to Ford's Island, where the wounded were left. Allard and the others, who were able, made their way back to the scene, to assist in the assault upon the enemy. The battle was in full swing, the Americans swinging the big guns upon the aircraft as best they could from listing decks of crippled battleships. Some sailors were even seen firing rifles at the planes! Fire drifted upon the oiled waters, and men were screaming in agony all around.
Allard later found out he had a bullet in his own right leg, but in the midst of the carnage, he hadn’t had time to even notice!
He survived, but many of his shipmates did not. Out of just under 1400 men on the Arizona, 1,777 lost their lives. Allard was one of the lucky few. Returning to Paducah, he married Anita, who had not known Allard's fate for nine long, heartbreaking days , following the bombing.
They became parents of seven surviving children, most of who lived in the Paducah area. Allard worked at Colonial Bread in Paducah for many years before succumbing to a massive heart attack, forty years after his initial brush with death at Pearl Harbor. His services were held at St Francis DeSales Church in downtown Paducah.
Not surprisingly, four of his sons joined the Navy. One of the sons was stationed at Pearl while the filming of a movie called Tora, Tora, Tora was being filmed in Hawaii about the 1941 bombing. Later, a grandson was assigned to the USS Arizona Memorial.
Allard was, and always will, remain a symbol of courage in action to those who knew him or have been told of his incredible story of bravery under fire.