75 years ago today, our president spoke of December 7, 1941 as a day that will live in infamy. But for one man who was at Pearl Harbor that day, it was a day of salvation, both physically and spiritually. I had the honor of officiating Bob Vilcone’s memorial service in 2013. I want to share the story of December 7th with you to inspire you and help you understand that in the midst of the greatest trials, God is still moving and working on our behalf.
In 1940 at the age of 18 Bob Vilcone enlisted in the US Navy, and served in the Navy with his older brother Stan. Initially he was stationed in San Diego.
War in Europe had broken out, and tensions were rising between the U.S. and Japan. The U.S. Navy moved much of its fighting force to Hawaii, in preparation for a potential war with Japan. The USS Maryland, a Colorado series battleship was docked on battleship row, with six other battleships. Bob was aboard ship that December morning eating breakfast and preparing to go ashore at 9:00am when the men would be released for liberty. The Maryland had a crew of over 1000 men.
Bob was lounging around below the deck reading the Sunday paper when he heard the roar of the Japanese planes. He didn’t realize that they were not friendly aircraft until the explosions of the first bombs next to the ship.
At 7:55am, the first bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor, with a Japanese plane dropping torpedoes that found their mark on the hull of the USS Oklahoma, which was attached to the Maryland with ropes and a gangway. The bugler on the USS Maryland played General Quarters, and the announcement went out:
"General quarters! General quarters!
Man your battle stations! THIS IS NO DRILL!"
and men hurried to their stations.
The USS Oklahoma was moored on the outside, shielding the Maryland, there were nine torpedoes that struck the USS Oklahoma in all, and within 20 minutes, the Oklahoma listed and turned upside-down. Many of it’s men climbed aboard the USS Maryland, who got its anti-aircraft guns up and running immediately and fired on the enemy for two hours straight.
Bob, was placed on the open quarter deck between two 16 inch guns, operating the radio, as an observer. Bob later told a newspaper reporter, "I stood there rather stunned because the (battleship) Oklahoma had already been torpedoed and capsized."
During the attack, the Maryland was struck by two armor-piercing bombs which detonated low on her hull. The first made a hole about 12 ft. by 20 ft. The second exploded after entering the hull & caused flooding. The Japanese erroneously announced that Maryland had been sunk, but the Oklahoma had shielded it from torpedoes and the men fought valiantly to protect what was left of our fleet.
Bob was telling the man in the tower – “there is fire everywhere,” they were being swarmed by 356 Japanese planes raining bombs and torpedoes on the harbor. Oil was on top of the water and was on fire. The fire was approaching the ship, so it was Bob who called in for fire suppression that may have saved the Maryland from catching fire.
Between volleys of fire, Bob would hear on the other end of the radio –
“Bobby, are you still there?”
The man on the other end of the radio was the man in the tower, none other than Stan Vilone, Bob’s older brother.
The guns continued to fire, and after the attack, the men onboard were sent in firefighting parties, especially attempting to rescue survivors from the capsized Oklahoma.
At the end of the attack, it was said that Bob was covered with soot from head to toe and you could only see the whites of his eyes. Bob later said that there was evidence that the deck was strafed by enemy bullets and he has no idea how he wasn’t harmed.
That day Bob gave his life to Jesus and never turned to look back. Bob knew that God had spared his life. 2400 Americans lost their lives and another 1200 were wounded.
After serving in the South Pacific, Bob needed medical attention, and it was in the military hospital in Southern California that he met Betty West, a nurse who he fell in love with and married. Bob attended Westmont College, and connected to a group of churches known as the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which is our denomination. The plan was for Bob & Betty to go overseas as missionaries to South America, but by the end of their training in linguistics there were concerns about Betty’s health, and with three small children, the CMA sent them to Feather Falls, CA, where Bob was assigned to pastor a small church.
Bob lived in Chico, raised his family and is a hero. He was saved, both physically and spiritually 75 years ago. May God teach us through his life, and inspire us no matter what our circumstances look like to trust Him.