Leslie “Bud” Hollenbeck: The bomb that nearly killed him at Pearl Harbor (”1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)

Updated: Dec. 6, 2019 at 12:43 PM EST
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HAMPSTEAD, N.C. (WECT) - Leslie “Bud” Hollenbeck started that Sunday morning as he had many others in the past year. He woke up in his bunk on the U.S.S. Pennsylvania around 6:30 a.m., had breakfast, and prepared to take the 8:00-12:00 watch on the signal bridge of the battleship. As the 19-year-old signalman began hoisting the flag on what he described as a warm and sunny day, he noticed a group of approaching planes.

“I thought they were our planes making a practice run,” said Hollenbeck, now 97 years old and by all accounts the only remaining Pearl Harbor survivor living in the Wilmington area.

Seconds later, Hollenbeck and thousands of others realized those planes did not belong to the United States. They were Japanese naval planes, carrying out a planned attack on the U.S. fleet. The U.S.S. Pennsylvania was not docked alongside the U.S.S. Arizona, U.S.S. Oklahoma and others along the well-known ‘battleship row’. It had gone into dry-dock for repairs the day before and sat about three-quarters of a mile across the Harbor. Hollenbeck remembers his watch commander, Tony Crudelli, sending him and another man into the battleship’s conning tower, since they were not needed on the bridge.

“While climbing through the conning tower doorway, I felt a sharp pain in my right wrist,” Hollenbeck remembers. It was a small puncture wound, likely from a piece of metal hit by a bullet from the attacking planes. “Knowing that everybody else had been hurt I wasn’t going to report it. They had enough problems without me.”

From his viewpoint inside the conning tower, Hollenbeck watched the attack unfold. He said the Pennsylvania was hit by one of the same 500-pound armor piercing bombs that had hit the U.S.S. Arizona and penetrated through to the powder magazine before exploding, sending the ship to the bottom of the harbor and killing 1,177 crew and officers on board.

“The Pennsy was lucky, because the bomb hit a broadside gun-mount causing it to explode before it could penetrate the six-inch armored deck,” said Hollenbeck. “It caused the death of 24 members of our crew. If the bomb had hit just one or two feet from where it did, we probably would have had the same fate as the (U.S.S.) Arizona.”

The two destroyers in dry dock next to the Pennsylvania, the U.S.S. Cassin and the U.S.S. Downes, took several hits from the enemy bombers. At one point, Hollenbeck believes a torpedo inside one of the ships exploded.

“We were watching the destroyers through the small ports in the conning tower, and the concussion threw both of us back against the opposite side,” he said, adding he does not remember being hit that hard ever since.

Hollenbeck says he does not remember much of what happened over the next two weeks, before the repaired U.S.S. Pennsylvania left Pearl Harbor, bound for the east coast of the United States.

“They didn’t tell us where we were going,” Hollenbeck said. “We were heading out, and the other ships were waving to us.”

Hollenbeck says he was able to write a letter to his parents to tell them he was alive after the attack. He did not get the chance to call them until the Pennsylvania arrived in San Francisco a few weeks later. Hollenbeck spent the rest of World War II serving on the Pennsylvania, seeing action in the Philippines and other locations, before leaving the U.S. Navy in 1946. He will attend a Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremony on Saturday, December 7, 2019, at the Hannah Block Historic USO/Community Arts Center at Second and Orange Streets in Wilmington. It will begin around 12:30 p.m. with a medley of World War II-era songs.

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