Sergeant Jim Adelsberger
Emmitsburg’s Last Pearl Harbor Survivor
by Richard D. L. Fulton
On February 24, 2009, Emmitsburg lost its last Pearl Harbor survivor, James (“Jim”) O. Adelsberger, at age 87, when he passed away at St. Catherine’s Nursing Center.
In November 2004, the reporter, who was then the news editor for the The Emmitsburg Disatch, met with Adelsberger at his West Main Street home, where he recounted his experiences on that fateful day of December 7, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the military installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Adelsberger was born on May 24, 1921, in Baltimore, son of the late Dwen and Adele Adelsberger, and James was married to the late-Loretta C. (Sanders) Adelsberger.
Upon graduation from the Emmitsburg High School, Adelsberger, at age 24, decided to enlist, at which time he became a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps, the unit in which he was serving at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, and the unit with whom he remained for five years.
Adelsberger had said during the 2004 interview, that he and three of his friends, Joseph Boyle, Jack Stoner, and Bud Shearer (all of whom enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the same time), upon enlisting, requested to serve in Hawaii, which the Army was then promoting as a “paradise.”
They were then assigned to “guard-duty” at Hickam Field when, subsequently, “Paradise” quickly became Hell on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese targeted Hickam Field as part of the overall assault in order to suppress any effort by the Army Air Corps to get their planes into the air to defend against the Japanese attack.
The attack commenced around 7:55 a.m., when Japanese Commander Mitsua Fuchida uttered the command, “Tora, tora, tora!”—which doesn’t mean “Attack, attack, attack.” It is Japanese for “Tiger, tiger, tiger” (code for executing a lightning attack).
“We heard the planes coming in and thought they were ours (an incoming flight of B-17s was anticipated that morning at Hickam Field),” Adelsberger stated during the 2004 interview.
In fact, the B-17s were arriving and found themselves mixed in with the attacking Japanese aircraft. Unfortunately, said Adelsberger, the B-17s were unarmed to lighten their loads.
“Some of them (the B-17s) were being hit. Some of them were being shot down. We didn’t know what was going on. Some of them were shot up pretty bad,” Adelsberger said.
As the intensity of the attack increased, he stated during the 2004 interview, “They just kept coming and coming, and we couldn’t figure out where they were all coming from,” adding that, none of the men could figure out why they were being attacked. “We didn’t know what it was for… I could see all of the attack. I could see ships half-sunk and buildings burned down after the attack.”
When the attack subsided about two hours later, Adelsberger said, during the 2004 interview, “There were a lot of fellows lying around (on the ground). They were lying everywhere. The field hospital was doing a real business that day.”
Hickam Field suffered extensive damage and aircraft losses, with 189 people killed (including civilians) and 303 wounded. In total, the Japanese assault left 2,388 military personnel dead, along with 1,178 wounded. Among the dead were 68 civilians. And the attack propelled the United States into World War II.
Sergeant Adelsberger was discharged from the military on October 16, 1945, and, subsequently, worked for 35 years at the United States Post Office in Emmitsburg.
On December 2, 2004, the Emmitsburg Board of Commissioners officially recognized Adelsberger as the “town’s last surviving citizen and Veteran of Pearl Harbor,” and issued a proclamation that declared December 7, 2004, as “James Adelsberger Day.”
Adelsberger was a member of the Emmitsburg Memorial VFW, Post 6658, the American Legion Francis X. Elder Post 121, and a lifelong communicant of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
Photograph of the attack on Pearl Harbor, taken by a Japanese fighter pilot.
James Adelsberger poses with his Pearl Harbor “Mementos,” including spent Japanese fighter cartridges and his burnt wallet and dog tags, which he recovered from his barracks after it had been bombed.