Unflinching Portraits of Pearl Harbor Survivors- page 7 | History | Smithsonian
(Marco Garcia / Wonderful Machine)

Unflinching Portraits of Pearl Harbor Survivors

Seventy years after the day that lives on in infamy, the soldiers stationed at Pearl Harbor recall their experiences

Earl Smith

Earl Smith Pearl Harbor survivor
(Marco Garcia / Wonderful Machine)

Startled awake by thunderous explosions, Earl Smith (above) scrambled up a ladder to the deck of the USS Tennessee. He slipped and chipped a tooth in the process but made it to his post in the gunnery department.

After the battle, Smith swam among burning oil slicks in an attempt to rescue men from the water. But he doesn’t remember finding anyone alive. He tied ropes to the ankles of the bodies so they could be pulled from the water. “That was his task,” says Garcia. “He has a macho veneer. But he more or less said it was like a horror movie.” As Garcia photographed him, Smith pointed out scars covering his arms. The square-chinned seaman is a “tough guy,” says Garcia, but to this day he still cannot shake the smell of burning flesh.

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