‘All at once we heard … boom!’

70 years later, Sterling veteran recalls attack on Pearl Harbor

By: Brian Louwers | C&G Newspapers | Published December 7, 2011

 Geno Morosi of Sterling Heights, 91, was on the deck of the USS Maryland when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was invited to speak to students at Warren’s Regina High School last month on Veterans Day.

Geno Morosi of Sterling Heights, 91, was on the deck of the USS Maryland when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was invited to speak to students at Warren’s Regina High School last month on Veterans Day.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Drawn to the Navy’s spiffy uniforms and the promise of seeing the world, Geno Morosi left small-town Illinois with his kid brother in 1940, bound for adventure on the high seas.

Their basic training behind them, the Morosi boys were assigned to the USS Maryland and spent time on the West Coast before shipping out together with the rest of the crew to Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in the summer of 1941.

America was still at peace as war raged in Europe and the Far East. Though there were rumblings, rumors and red flags that foreshadowed a clash between Japan and the United States in the Pacific, nothing could have prepared Geno, then 21, and Albert Morosi, 19, for what happened on Dec. 7, 1941.

Remembering the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years later, Geno Morosi of Sterling Heights, now 91, said the weeks, days and hours before the U.S. was thrust into World War II were routine. He said he enjoyed occasional shore leave with his buddies or his brother, but that he mostly worked and studied hard, trying to make more money in the Navy.

Geno said at the time, most people assumed the Japanese would strike by surprise in the Philippines if they were to attack American forces. But looking back, it’s easy to see how Pearl Harbor was a tempting target.

“The problem was at Pearl Harbor, just before the Japanese attacked, about a month before that, we’d go out on maneuvers Monday through Friday, and come back and tie up Saturdays and Sundays at the same spot all the time,” Geno Morosi said. “We were at the head; the Oklahoma was next to us; the Tennessee was inboard of the West Virginia, right behind us. Behind that was the Arizona, that blew up. Behind the Arizona was the Nevada, and on the other side was the California, and, I think, the Pennsylvania was in dry dock. So all the battleships were there.”

Geno said he couldn’t remember whether he ate breakfast on the day of the raid. He said he awoke around 7 a.m., and he was watching a game of backgammon when the first planes hit the harbor.

“All I remember is that morning I went out on the deck, which faced Ford Island. I was watching my superior play acey-deucey,” Geno said. “He was a survivor of the Asiatic Fleet. He’d been in the Navy quite awhile. All at once we heard … boom! A plane came over and blew up the hangar on Ford Island, and he looked up and he knew what it was right away. ‘Go to your battle station,’ he told me. I went to my battle station, which was useless.”

Normally assigned to the Maryland’s 6-inch broadside guns — indeed, useless in the defense of Pearl Harbor — but called to do the job of sailors still onshore during the attack, Geno’s division was quickly ordered to man the ship’s anti-aircraft batteries. But with the Maryland tied to the Oklahoma, and Ford Island on its other side, he said the guns weren’t much use against the torpedo bombers that came in low over the water.

“All at once, the planes were hitting the Army air bases, and then the torpedo bombers came in,” Geno said. “I’ll say one thing about the Japanese: They had the best torpedoes in the world. When that thing hit, it hit.”

The Oklahoma took the first of at least three torpedoes shortly after the attack began. The ship capsized within 20 minutes, setting off a frantic, two-day rescue effort and causing the deaths of more than 400 sailors.

Other vessels on Battleship Row were also pummeled. The Arizona — hit by torpedoes and bombs — exploded and sunk, killing more than 1,100. The California and the West Virginia both were torpedoed and sunk. The Nevada suffered heavy damage, and the Tennessee, the Pennsylvania, and the Maryland would all need repairs before returning to service.

Geno said he was concerned about his brother as chaos erupted around him, but was relieved to see him alive and unharmed when they spoke briefly as the battle raged.

“He said to me that they were cutting the lines to the Oklahoma because she was capsizing and pulling a list on the Maryland that was tied to the dock,” Geno said. “And that’s the last I saw him, until after that, the next day we saw each other.”

Shielded between Ford Island and the Oklahoma, the Maryland sustained relatively minor damage. Records show a total of four casualties for the ship at Pearl Harbor, including an officer killed in an airplane crash.

“Of all the battleships there, we were the least damaged of the bunch,” said Geno, who was later awarded the Purple Heart for hearing loss suffered at Pearl Harbor.

He said he spent the hours after the attack at his post. Albert Morosi, normally assigned to the Maryland’s monstrous 16-inch guns, worked to retrieve bodies from the West Virginia the next day.

“I think it took awhile to realize just what happened. One thing about the military, you’re trained to do something. Right, wrong or indifferent, you do it,” Geno Morosi said. “The next day was where it really hit you, what the damage was.

“Oh, it’s frightening. I just thank God that my brother and I were both all right. We were fortunate enough we were on the ship with the least damage, practically nothing.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of a long war for the United States, and just the beginning of the action for the Morosi boys.

Geno and Albert were together on the Maryland until 1943, and took part in the bombardment of Tarawa. They were later split up — Geno was assigned to the attack transport USS Alpine, and Albert, to the attack cargo ship USS Arneb — but sailed in the same fleet during the invasions of Guam, the Philippines, and Okinawa.

On the other side of the world, their older brother, August Morosi, served in Europe with the U.S. Army during World War II, where he saw action during the Battle of the Bulge.

Discharged in September 1946, Geno Morosi eventually moved to Michigan and met his wife, Virginia — his cousin’s college roommate — the next year. They married in 1949, lived first in Detroit, and then spent 10 years in St. Clair Shores and more than 30 years in Grosse Pointe Park, before settling in Sterling Heights in 1994. They’ve now been married for 62 years, and have four children and six grandchildren who are all very proud of Geno’s service in the Navy.

“I don’t think we talked about it very much,” Virginia Morosi said of her husband’s experience at Pearl Harbor. “I’m sure it affected his life, but it’s kind of hard to pinpoint. I would say that our grandchildren are so very proud of him. They read all they can, and just say to him all the time how proud they are of him.”

Geno retired from his career as a unit manager at Carboloy Inc., a division of General Electric Co., in 1984.

He never went back to Pearl Harbor.

“I was interested in working, making some money, so I could educate my four kids. I never took time out for anything,” he said. “I’m just glad I survived it. My brother survived it. My older brother came back from the Army. My parents were satisfied.

“I can’t say much about it. I just thought it was a beautiful place to spend some time, until all of this happened. My father told me when we enlisted, he says, ‘One thing you’ve got to do is learn to take orders. Obey what you’re told to do, and you do it.’ He says, ‘You’ll never get in trouble.’ When they told me to man the guns, I just went.”

Albert Morosi, now 89, lives in northern California. He still takes friendly jabs at his older brother —Geno and his shipmates on the Alpine “couldn’t shoot straight,” he said, and the boat was hit twice by kamikazes — but he said he always looked up to him.

“Geno is one hell of a guy. He was a brother you would want,” Albert Morosi said. “He was kind and efficient and smart, and what have you. I looked up to him all the time.”