From the staff

Column: A sister shares her brother's Pearl Harbor story

Fate and luck kept Samuel Powell alive when Pearl Harbor was attacked. His sister is grateful for his service, which changed her life, too.

spowell@newsobserver.comDecember 6, 2012 

On a December day in 1961, I was getting ready for school when I heard a radio announcer say it was “Pearl Harbor Day.” When I asked my mother what that meant, she told me about my brother’s experience as a crew member on the USS Helena when the Japanese dropped bombs on it.

I hurried off to school, where I stood proudly in front of my second-grade class and retold the story of my brother – Steward’s Mate 1st Class Samuel Powell Jr. I’ve been sharing the story ever since.

In 1977, I dropped out of college and enlisted in the U.S. Navy – a much different Navy from the one Samuel had joined. A few years later, just like Samuel, I headed to Honolulu.

Samuel had faced death as he participated in one of the most pivotal moments in our nation’s history. I made sure everyone knew my brother had been at Pearl Harbor.

“Your brother?” a shipmate asked, surprised that a woman my age could have a brother old enough to have experienced the Japanese attack.

“Yes,” I said. “We had the same father, but different mothers.”

Samuel’s miracle

A few days after I arrived in Hawaii, I toured the USS Arizona Memorial and watched a film about the attack. This was my moment of clarity that it was a miracle my brother had survived.

One of the sailors killed that day was 23-year-old Raleigh native Randolph Williamson Jr. – one of the first black men from Wake County killed in action during World War II, according to The News & Observer.

It struck me that Samuel could have been among the first black men from Nash County killed in World War II. Without divine intervention, fate or luck, I would never have known him. That evening I found a quiet moment to write to him and tell him how grateful I was that he had survived the attack that more than 2,400 service members had not.

Helena was in the berth normally assigned to the battleship USS Pennsylvania and thus became a prime target for the Japanese planes.

‘Loyal to Helena’

Samuel, now 96 and living in Goldsboro, says he remembers chaos all around him that morning, but he says he was not scared. “Everything was happening so fast I didn’t have time to be scared.”

He said the Helena crew had trained for this day and was ready to defend the ship.

“We were fiercely loyal to Helena,” he says. “We would have followed that ship anywhere, but to the bottom of the ocean.”

Helena’s crew shot down six Japanese planes that day.

Since my mother first told me of the events of Dec. 7, 1941, I have been on a relentless journey of discovery. Samuel’s military service, and that of his contemporaries such as Williamson, set the precedent for my own. The surprise attack changed my brother’s life and, ultimately, mine.

Each Dec. 7, I call Samuel and listen as he retells his story. The memories of the attack are always with him.

Few Pearl Harbor survivors remain, and the time will come when Samuel will no longer be here to share those memories. Carrying on his legacy will be up to me.

Sharon Powell is a news assistant for The News & Observer’s Eastern Wake News and Clayton News-Star. or 919-829-4855

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