Pearl Harbor survivor: ‘It felt like the whole island shook’

By: Alex Szwarc | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published December 2, 2019

 Pearl Harbor survivor Russell Shields holds a photo of the USS Selfridge. The 97-year-old from St. Clair Shores was  at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when it was attacked and  transferred to the Selfridge a day later.

Pearl Harbor survivor Russell Shields holds a photo of the USS Selfridge. The 97-year-old from St. Clair Shores was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when it was attacked and transferred to the Selfridge a day later.

Photo by Alex Szwarc

  Russell Shields and his wife, Helen Shields, celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary in March.

Russell Shields and his wife, Helen Shields, celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary in March.

Photo by Alex Szwarc

 The Shields received a letter in March from President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump. In it, the Trumps wrote that the country owes the Greatest Generation a  debt of gratitude.

The Shields received a letter in March from President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump. In it, the Trumps wrote that the country owes the Greatest Generation a debt of gratitude.

Photo by Alex Szwarc

ST. CLAIR SHORES — Russell Shields was one of the first Americans to open fire on Japaneses forces in World War II.

Shields, now 97, was a 19-year-old aboard the USS Whitney destroyer tender on Dec. 7, 1941, a day “which will live in infamy.”

On that morning, Shields, who now resides in St. Clair Shores, was docked near Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor.

“We didn’t know why or who was attacking us,” he said. “It wasn’t until we shot down planes that we realized what was going on.”

The surprise attack on the U.S. fleet stationed on the Hawaiian island of Oahu killed more than 2,400 people and left more than 1,100 wounded.  

Shields said the plan for the morning of Dec. 7 was to meet a friend who was on the USS California and take a 90-mile trip around Oahu.

“Of course, the war broke out and we didn’t get a chance to make that trip. I still haven’t made that trip,” he said.
Born in November 1922 in Kansas, Shields enlisted in the Navy in 1938.

Before the attack, his day-to-day work on the Whitney included cleaning, and unloading materials from supply ships and placing them on the Whitney. Around 50 men were on the Whitney.

“We had no idea that America would be drawn into the war, and all of a sudden, all hell broke loose,” he said.

From the Whitney, Shields saw and heard Japanese planes flying overhead, and the ensuing bombings.  

“The Arizona blew up and it felt like the whole island shook,” he said.

The USS Arizona was bombed during the attack, exploded and sank, with the loss of 1,177 officers and crewmen.

Shields was positioned toward the rear of the Whitney on Dec. 7.

“I wound up topside setting fuses on 3-foot anti-craft shells,” he said.

Moments after the air assault began, around 7:50 a.m., Shields manned his battle station at an anti-aircraft gun.

“We practiced at different times before the war broke out on what to do,” he said. “Training helped us. There were certain things you had to do.”

In the middle of all the chaos, Shields said, there wasn’t time to sit around and worry.

The night of Dec. 7, he remembers folks around Pearl Harbor being trigger happy.

“In town, you could hear them firing machine guns every once in a while,” he said.  

On Dec. 8, Shields was transferred to the destroyer USS Selfridge.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Shields, along with his squadron, traveled to places like Midway, Wake Island and Bora Bora, and by August 1942, he was at Guadalcanal for Operation Watchtower, the first major offensive by Allied forces against Japan.

Before the war ended, the Selfridge stopped at Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Leyte, North Africa and Italy.

Shields was discharged on Jan. 7, 1947. A unique medal he received from his time in the service was the Pearl Harbor Commemorative Medal, given to individuals who were in the armed forces present in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, and participated in combat operations against Japanese military forces attacking Hawaii.

During the war, Shields’ wife of 75 years, Helen, was a Rosie the Riveter, working at Briggs Manufacturing in Detroit. Helen turns 98 in January.

“You vote on his birthday, Nov. 8, and you get a new president on mine, Jan. 20, Inauguration Day,” she said.

“The things we do for this country,” Russell joked.

In honor of the anniversary, the Shields received a letter from President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump.

After his discharge, Shields primarily worked as a carpenter. The couple have lived in St. Clair Shores for over 70 years and have seven children, 19 grandchildren, 33 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.

Two of the Shields’ daughters, Joellen Burton, of Rochester Hills, and Judy Irving, of Grosse Pointe Woods, agree that all these years later, it doesn’t get old hearing their father’s war stories.

“Every time, you hear something different and it brings back memories,” Irving said.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that 389,292 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive in 2019, with nearly 300 dying each day.