The day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, an 18-year-old sailor named Fred “Earl” Smith, quite a baseball player, took the infield for two intra-Navy games.
Smith and his shipmates from the battleship USS Tennessee took on the team from the Arizona, then from the West Virginia.
The first game was close, the future Santa Rosa Junior College instructor recalled in an interview in 2015, until he hit a home run.
“It won the game against the Arizona,” Smith told Hawaii Public Radio. “The West Virginia, we stomped ’em.”
The Navy baseball players partied that Saturday night in Honolulu. Early the next morning, torrents of Japanese bombs, torpedoes and bullets turned Pearl Harbor awash in death and fire.
For the following 76 years, it pained Smith to read the names of the sailors who died that day.
“Half of the West Virginia’s ballplayers were killed and all the Arizona’s ballplayers were killed,” he said two years ago.
The career Navy man and former 26-year resident of Sonoma County died May 21 at his retirement home in Rio Vista. He was 94.
Smith, who taught electronics at SRJC through much of the 1980s and ’90s and for a short time ran a Texaco service station on Santa Rosa Avenue, returned many times to Oahu and to Pearl Harbor. He was there most recently for the 75th anniversary observances last December.
Smith recalled then to a Los Angeles Times reporter that after the attack he was sent into the burning harbor in a motor launch to recover injured and dead sailors.
“I felt like I was trying to save lives,” he said. “And we did pull a few out who were injured. But most we just had to tie a rope to the leg and pull them out and stack them like cords of wood.”
Smith remarked after the 75th anniversary ceremonies that he might not be physically or emotionally up to anymore return visits to Pearl Harbor. The veteran also carried with him memories from the historically deadly Battle of Tarawa in November 1943.
Smith was born in 1923 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and upon graduating from high school went into the Navy. On the day of the attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy, his hands were badly burned as he fought fires and helped to remove injured and dead sailors from the oil-coated and burning harbor.
He was hospitalized for several weeks and then transferred from the damaged Tennessee to the aircraft carrier Saratoga.
After the war, Smith made a run at big-league baseball. He was signed onto a major league farm team and hadn’t played long when a base-runner took him out at second base, injuring the shoulder of his throwing arm badly enough to put him out of the sport.
So he re-upped with the Navy. He was assigned to a mobile electronics unit and rose to the rank of chief warrant officer.
He was back on Oahu when, in 1950, his life changed when his eyes met those of Anna Marie Petersen, a tourist from San Francisco.
“He met my mom in the lobby of the Ala Moana Hotel, underneath the banyan tree,” said son Robert Smith of San Mateo. The couple married in 1956 and settled in San Mateo. Earl Smith worked at Naval Station Treasure Island.