Former NFL coach Tom Bass relives the horror of Pearl Harbor 77 years later

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Former NFL assistant Tom Bass was a child living on Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941 and relives what he witnessed that morning.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: To access this interview, fast-forward to 1:06:21 of the attached audio)

Tom Bass was more than the coordinator who designed a Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense that ranked at or near the top of the NFL from 1978 through 1981. He was more than the first coach hired by Paul Brown in Cincinnati and the defensive coordinator in San Diego during the "Air Coryell" era, too.

In fact, he was much more.

He was a witness to the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, a day that then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared "will live in infamy" and an attack that ushered the United States into World War II.

Bass was 6 then, the son of an Army Air Corps Master Sergeant stationed and living at Hickam Air Force Base on Oahu. And Tom was outside the morning the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor 77 years ago Friday, wondering what he was seeing as planes whistled overhead en route to an historic assault on the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

"I don't remember a lot about when I was six," Bass said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast, "but I do remember that day. I'll never forget it. My older brother (Jim) and I were outside that day playing Sunday morning, and Mom was making breakfast.

"This plane came really low over the house, and we looked up … and there was this big red circle over the wings. And we didn't know what that was. And then we started hearing the explosions, which we thought was the Navy just shooting their guns off."

As he soon discovered, it wasn't the U.S. Navy that was doing shooting. It was the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service, and it was more than guns. It dropped bombs, fired a gazillion rounds of bullets and launched air strikes that would sink the Navy fleet then anchored at Pearl Harbor, an attack that killed 2,403 Americans and wounded 1,178 others.

"My Dad knew a lot of people that were killed," Bass said. "It was a really difficult time. We ran inside, my brother and I, and yelled to my Dad. And My Dad looked out the window and knew right away what was going on.

"So he had us get all the mattresses and put them in the hall walls, and we hunkered down -- my Mom and my two brothers and I -- for about three hours while the attack went on. Being young kids ... my brother Jim was two years older than I ... we kept peeking out the window. We were living right across from the motor pool, and they blew it completely up.

"So it was a trying time for three hours, not knowing what was going to go on. Basically, we had a guy come and (he) said, 'We're going to try to get you out of here in a half-hour. Get as much stuff as you can carry.'

"Mom packed up and got us to get some clothes and stuff. And, as we were leaving the house we went out through the kitchen in the back, and we looked at our refrigerator. And it had about 15 bullet holes through it. So I guess we were pretty lucky."

Others were not. Eight U.S. battleships were damaged, and four sank. Three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and one mine layer either also sank or were damaged. And 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed.

"The worst thing (I remember)," said Bass, "was looking across the parade ground where the chapel was. There were services going on, and they hit that pretty hard. That burned pretty bad. We were in a situation where no one knew whether (the Japanese) were going to land on the island or whatever. So the next 24 hours were a little iffy all the way around."

As it turned out, Bass, his mother and two brothers were evacuated and moved to a makeshift camp. Later, they moved in with a Hawaiian family known to his Mom and Dad, staying there for what he said was four-to-five weeks before returning to the base and later moving to the mainland U.S.

"I didn't feel traumatized by it," Bass said, "but I think my Mom was the worst. Because when they put us on the truck to take us off the base, they gave my Mom four gas masks and a .45 automatic. I don't think she was real happy about that. I'm not sure what she was supposed to do with the gas masks or the automatic."

Bass would return to Hawaii years later and said he's visited the site of the bombing, particularly where the U.S.S. Arizona is submerged. But he doesn't have to see the carnage to envision what happened 77 years ago. He can see it in his head Dec. 7 of every year.

"What I feel bad about in some ways," he said, "is that it's going to be the kids that were there that are going to be the ones that are going to have to bring the memory back. Because so many of the actual people that participated in the defense of the island are gone."

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