The events of that day reverberated far beyond the Hawaiian islands. As radio broadcasts spread the news across the continental United States, thousands of American men rushed to enlist in a war that would spread across Europe and into Africa and the Pacific. Among the people who took their place in World War II was Bill Thorns.
SANTA ROSA BEACH — Seventy-six years ago today, a Japanese sneak attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor took the lives of more than 2,300 American military personnel, most of them sailors, and destroyed or damaged 19 ships. The attack prompted the entry of the United States into World War II.
In the years since, the anniversary of the events of Dec. 7, 1941, has prompted nationwide reflection focused largely on the survivors of the horrific attack. But three-quarters of a century removed from that fateful day, it's a sad truth that large numbers of the people who survived the attack have passed on. In all of Northwest Florida, no more than a few survivors remain to tell the tale of the attack.
But the events of that day reverberated far beyond the Hawaiian islands. As radio broadcasts spread the news across the continental United States, thousands of American men rushed to enlist in a war that would spread across Europe and into Africa and the Pacific.
Among the people who took their place in World War II was Bill Thorns.
Now a resident of Somerby, a senior living community in Santa Rosa Beach, on that day Thorns was a just-turned-18 young man living with his family in Pittsburgh. He describes the day this way in a book he wrote on the war years:
"It was a Sunday, and I was on my way home from church. Neighbors rushed out to their porches and yelled to me as I was passing by — or to anyone who could hear — about the attack.
"Finally, after much discussion, Mom and Dad reluctantly gave their permission and I joined and was inducted into the Air Corps, and left on Dec. 23, 1941."
Three Christmases would pass before Thorns would again celebrate the holiday at home.
In the interim, he would be sent to aircraft maintenance school, be assigned to a stateside training squadron where he prepared engineers for crews of the formidable B-17 bomber, and eventually go overseas with that squadron for bombing missions over France and Germany.
His face still carries the markings of the oxygen mask he wore for hours in the freezing B-17. The aircraft was not pressurized, so in addition to operating in thin air, Thorns and his fellow crew members endured temperatures of dozens of degrees below zero.
He'd wanted to be a pilot but failed an eye test. To this day, he suspects the sun at the California facility where he took the test made his eyes watery, obscuring his vision just as it was his turn for the exam. In the ensuing days, he'd try eating carrots and exposing himself to red light — two folk remedies to improve eyesight — even though he knew he'd missed his chance to be a pilot.
"My eyes kept me from being in pilot training," he said wistfully in a recent interview. "I had full expectations of thinking I was going to do it."
If there was anyone ideally suited to be a pilot, it was Thorns. As a youngster, he and his friends spent time building rubber-band-powered model airplanes out of balsa wood. As a teen, he submitted a design for a wing to a 1939 "Plane of the Future" competition, fueling his dreams of one day becoming an aeronautical engineer.
And sometimes thoughts of soaring through the sky would enter his sleep.
"My parents would say every now and then that they would hear me dreaming about a plane being in a dive," he said.
But while he wasn't behind the controls of the B-17s, Thorns' work as an engineer was critical to keeping the plane in the air.
"There were a lot of things to worry about on a B-17," he said.
And there were other worries, too, Thorns said. While bombing missions were aimed at destroying German infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities, bomber crews were keenly aware that their missions likely would also claim civilian lives.
"We all had reservations about that," he said. But they were balanced by the human suffering they saw in London resulting from German air attacks.
"When most of us saw the carnage in London, we didn't feel too bad," he said.
And then, there was Thorns' own personal experience of loss in the war. During one bombing mission, Thorns' B-17 was badly damaged after it was hit by hostile fire over Rheims, France. The plane limped home to England on fire, with two engines out.
The plane crash-landed in Gravesend, England. Pronouncing the town's name as "graves end," Thorns ruefully remembered it as a chillingly appropriate place for the crash-landing.
"Not all of us made it," he said.
The apartment where Thorns now lives with his wife, Dorothy — the couple marked 70 years of marriage last year — contains numerous reminders of Thorns' time in World War II. One of the first things a visitor sees is a giant framed picture puzzle of a B-17. There's also a rendering of Thorn's own B-17 — dubbed Fertile Myrtle III "for the 'fertility' of the bombs in the bomb bay," Thorns explained — hanging on another wall.
But beyond his obvious affection for the B-17, one casualty of Thorns' service in World War II was his desire to become an aeronautical engineer.
"I felt after I got out of service, I'd had my fill of airplanes," he said.
Instead, he used the GI Bill to earn a degree in chemical engineering and made a career in that field while he and his wife raised their five children.
Today, decades removed from the war that changed untold American lives for better or worse and turned out to be one of the linchpins of world history, Thorns continues to reflect on it.
"Most of us just did not realize we were forming history," he said. "You had to be there to appreciate what went on. We all grew up in the war."