Photos courtesy of Lee Ousley.
1212 Pearl Harbor
Homewood resident Lee Ousley, a violinist, was stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii when the Japanese attacked in 1941.
Just after breakfast on Dec. 7, 1941, Homewood native Lee Ousley, a member of a 20-piece United States Navy band, was basking in the sunshine on the deck of the USS Dobbins in Honolulu when something caught his eye. He looked across the bay toward Battleship Row and saw airplanes dipping and diving around the ships.
“Why would they be having drills on Sunday morning?” someone remarked.
The crew soon learned they weren’t.
As one of the airplanes banked a sharp left, Ousley said everyone on the deck saw a large red dot on the underside of its wings. At that moment, the sailors knew these were they were under attack by the Japanese.
The sailors on the Dobbins began firing on planes. Unlike the destroyers that had been in port for some time, the ship had been on maneuvers just days before and had munitions stored by the guns.
Even though Ousley was a musician, he busied himself manning the water pumps used to cool the 50-caliber machine guns. He also helped carry heavy ammunition to the three- inch guns.
“These were older guns and weren’t very effective in shooting down the Japanese planes,” he recalled.
After the first wave of attacks, crewmen busied themselves preparing for another onslaught. Ousley and a horn player were sent below deck to the magazine – a storage compartment for ammunition – to bring up more three-inch shells.
“We were in the magazine when the second wave attack started, and they closed the hatch locking us inside,” he said.
Ousley and the horn player were sitting on thousands of pounds of munitions, and concern began to creep in. The horn player told Ousley if they got hit to please tell his family what happened.
“I told him if we got hit, there wouldn’t be a piece of either of us big enough to cover a postage stamp,” he recalled with a smile.
By the attack’s end, the Dobbins had still not been hit. He spent the weeks that followed aiding wounded and helping put things back together.
His band remained at Pearl Harbor until the summer of 1942 before getting orders to head to the South Pacific. Once at New Caledonia (northeast of Australia), they provided support for Guadalcanal and helped work on ships damaged at Midway and other sea battles in the Pacific. The musicians also played concerts, shows, and dances for soldiers and sailors in the area to help lift morale.
“We played USO shows, and we backed a lot of vaudeville acts that came to perform,” he said.
After about a year in the South Pacific, the Navy sent the musicians stateside, and they ended their tour at Sampson Naval Training Base in New York. When the war ended, Ousley worked for a short time selling shoes in the Washington D.C. area before enrolling in the Cincinnati Conservatory where he earned a degree in music.
It was at the Conservatory where he met his wife Nora, who was attending graduate school. They married in 1952 and moved back to Birmingham, where he landed a job as a violinist in the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. Nora taught voice at Samford University in Homewood for 40 years, and he played violin professionally until macular degeneration made reading music difficult.
“Nora and I both feel so fortunate that we could spend our lives doing the work we love,” he said.
Lee and Nora have two sons, Mitchell, and Gary, and a daughter, Deborah. They celebrated their 90th birthdays and their 60th wedding anniversary in 2012.