Capital Region veteran recounts pain, destruction of attack on Pearl Harbor

TROY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – A Troy man recounted seeing the pain and destruction on Pearl Harbor on the 74th anniversary of the attack.

Monday marks 74 years since the attack that led Pres. Franklin Roosevelt to call December 7 “a day which will live on in infamy.”

On December 7, 1941, Japan’s Navy and air force launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Their target was the United States Navy’s Pacific fleet.

More than 2,400 Americans were killed, half the U.S. fleet was lost, and all eight battleships were damaged or destroyed. Congress immediately declared war on Japan, and Nazi Germany then declared war on the United States, which put the nation in World War II.

December 7 is an especially hard day for a 93-year-old man from Troy. He was there the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

“I’ll tell you it was a terrible day,” Charles Sontheimer said.

Sontheimer doesn’t have to study the history books. He was a 19-year-old in the Army in the hospital in Pearl Harbor on that fateful day in 1941.

“I was in the bathroom shaving, and I heard this bomb go off – the first one, first plane in,” he said. “Somebody hollered out, ‘The navy is practicing again!’ and I hollered back, ‘The navy don’t practice on Sunday night.’ I says, ‘That’s the Japs.’”

Sontheimer was right. The Japanese attacked, the ships sank, and the wounded poured in.

“Maybe in about two hours after they started, they started bringing the wounded in the hospital, oh God,” he recalled. “I don’t wanna see that again. Mangled bodies. I’d never seen such a thing.”

The hardest part was having to watch the attack and be powerless to help.

“So I was up eye level with the pilots,” he said. “They were flying this way across my vision.”

“I could see ‘em setting up there,” he continued. “If I only had my rifle, I coulda picked ‘em off one at a time. All I had were [my hands].”

After the war, Sontheimer’s hands layed brick for 50 years building some of the most prominent structures in the Capital Region. He married, had kids, and has lived a life full of love. But that includes a memory that still haunts him.

“I never wanna see that again,” he said. “I still have dreams about it sometimes. No, you never forget it.”

Sontheimer grew up in Watervliet and got a fake birth certificate so he could join the Army at 17.

After WWII, he helped build Troy High School and many of the banks seen in the area. Today, he lives a quiet, humble life in Troy not realizing he’s a hero.

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