Back in January 1941, Buford Barber saw war coming. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were overrunning Europe, and Japanese troops were in China.
So Barber enlisted in the Navy and trained as a radioman.
And when war came to the United States, Barber saw it first-hand.
The USS Helena, a light cruiser, arrived at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in August 1941. The ship was docked and Barber in the radio room when Japan launched a sneak attack the morning of Dec. 7.
A torpedo pierced the hull of the Helena, causing an engine room and a boiler room to flood. Twenty people on the cruiser died.
“I knew something was wrong because when the torpedo hit, the ship wavered like that,” said Barber, 87, holding his hand horizontal and rocking it back and forth.
Despite the casualties and the sight of flames and smoke coming from the vents on deck, Barber, 20 years old at the time, said he wasn’t frightened.
“We saw guys burned and some guys that were killed below deck in the engine room. They were bringing them up dead,” he said.
“It wasn’t a very joyful sight,” he continued. “But I was a young man, and that’s part of your life. You keep on living. You don’t die, you live. You live forever. Nothing can happen to you.
“And that’s why wars are made for young people.”
During peacetime, Barber said, Hawaii was a beautiful place to be, even if Waikiki Beach didn’t live up to expectations.
“We did have some fun,” he said. “We saw Hawaiian dancers, we went to parties on the island there.”
After the attack, the Helena got a temporary patch before going back to California for repairs and to pick up more guns and sailors.
The cruiser finally went down in July 1943, during the Battle of Kula Gulf off the Solomon Islands. Three torpedos hit the ship, and it sank in 30 minutes, Barber said.
He stayed in the Navy until 1947, after which he worked in a post office and then managed several shoe stores in the Cleveland area.
Barber doesn’t want to be seen as a hero. He chose the Navy because he wanted to avoid trench warfare and island landings that often killed thousands, he said.
But when he wears his “Pearl Harbor Survivor” hat, he gets a lot of thank-yous.
“People come up and shake hands with you and say I appreciate your service,” he said. “And it makes you feel good.”
World War II veterans are disappearing fast, at a rate of about 900 each day.
Pearl Harbor survivors are especially scarce. A Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman said the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association claims about 5,000 members. Slightly more than 17,000 service members were stationed there at the time of the attack.
Barber said the crowds are dwindling at get-togethers he’s attended. It’s important for those who remain to tell their stories, he said.
“It was the day when World War II started for the United States,” he said. “I want people to remember that day.”