'Wrong place, right time': 96-year-old local veteran, Pearl Harbor survivor remembers lost heroes

PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. -- For Tom Berg, the memories of Pearl Harbor are just like flipping through his classic photo album.

The 96-year-old remembers the good times on board the U.S.S. Tennessee, as he shows us a photo of him as a mess cook.

“So I just came up topside with my bib around my waist, and I was washing up the plates from the previous mess,” he said.

He also remembers the bad.

“Our ship had received two bombs," he said.

The buttons on his hat tell a story, too. Some say "a nation remembers." Others mark 50 years since the Pearl Harbor attack, all the way to the 77th year. Tom has lived it. And if you ever meet him, he will gladly talk about it.

They are vivid memories.

“With these torpedoes coming in, I was very fortunate that we were inboard. We had the West Virginia protecting us. And the Maryland was in front of us, and she took a bomb through the bow of the ship,” he recalled.

It all started in 1940.  Berg was 18 years old at the time.  Originally from Aberdeen, he just wanted to serve his country, like his friends.

“I did not want to go in the Army, in the dirt. So to avoid that, I was going to join the Navy,” said Berg.

That he did, serving as a seaman and eventually fireman 1st class aboard the Tennessee.

On December 7th 1941, Berg was on the deck, taking a quick break from preparing the ship for an inspection.

“I saw an airplane on the north end of Ford Island, machine gunning something. And he pulled out of a dive and flew right over me, and he had two great big red circles under his wings,” he said. “And I had no concept of the Japanese coming, and I thought, that’s an Army-Air Force plane and they decorated it to make it look more realistic."

Turned out, it was a Japanese plane. It never occurred to Berg initially that they would attack.

“And then the clarinet player from the morning’s color band came running through our compartment yelling, 'The Japanese are attacking!' I looked at him strangely. He must’ve gone berserk,” he said.

Berg, under general quarters, went back in the ship's boiler room during the attack.

“One bomb hit the roof. The roof is four inchces thick. It punched, then broke apart. And powder went into the room and it burned three men, five men total in that room in the Tennessee. We were lucky,” he said.

Lucky indeed,  as the Tennessee wasn't heavily damaged. But there were losses.

“A fragment went around a gun shield around this anti-aircraft gun, and one fragment went and killed my friend Gene Rowe,” said Berg.

Pearl Harbor was the final resting place for more 2,300 American service members and more than 60 civilians.

“I went on deck topside, and it was complete blackout. Honolulu was never like that before. There were not lights anywhere. The only lights were smoldering fires on the West Virginia and Arizona, still burning,” said Berg.

Tom lost friends that day. But since that time, he has met new ones when he visits Pearl Harbor every year.

"When I’m there, I’m  besieged by people who want their photos and autographs with me. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time,” he said.

It remains unclear how many Pearl Harbor survivors are left, which is one reason Berg goes to different events, speaking about his experiences so that people don't forget.

“I am very thankful that I’m here to accept their thank you,” said Berg.

Berg currently lives in Port Townsend with his wife Lesa. He served in the Navy for six years.