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Minnesota Pearl Harbor survivor recalls attack

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Richard Thill
Richard Thill, president of the Twin Cities Chapter of Pearl Harbor Survivors, attended a Memorial Day ceremony at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in 2015.
Riham Feshir | MPR News 2015

Editor's note: This story was originally posted in 2015. Some information was updated on Dec. 7, 2018.

Friday marks the 77th anniversary of the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,400 Americans were killed when Japanese planes bombed the Hawaiian naval base during World War II. 

There aren't many survivors left in Minnesota — or across the country. Richard Thill, 95, of St. Paul, is one of them. Thill is president of the Twin Cities Chapter of Pearl Harbor Survivors. He said that, at one point after the war, there were more than 500 survivors in Minnesota. 

Thill will be among the honored guests at Minnesota's Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day ceremony at Fort Snelling in St. Paul. The program includes performances by the Fort Snelling Memorial Rifle Squad and the 34th Infantry Division "Red Bull" Band's brass quartet.

Hear Thill recount his experience by clicking the audio link above. 

Where was he during the attack?

Thill, then 18, was part of the crew of about 140 aboard the destroyer USS Ward, the ship credited with firing the first American shots of World War II. Among them were 84 Minnesotans, serving in the Naval Reserve. Thill and his shipmates were on a routine patrol of restricted waters outside the harbor's mouth when the attack began. 

USS Ward
The USS Ward.
Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command

About an hour before the attack, they fired upon — and sank — a Japanese midget submarine.

Today, the gun that was mounted atop the Ward's midships deckhouse sits on the State Capitol grounds, on the west side of the Veterans Service Building.  

Did he think he'd make it out alive?

Thill thinks the inexperience of young Japanese pilots may have saved his life. 

Two planes flew overhead side by side, leaving a gap in between them, instead of flying in a single file. The space was just enough that the bombs they dropped fell to either side of the ship. 

"If they'd gone single file, they'd have sunk us right there," he said. 

He met a Japanese POW who was captured after his attempted attack on Pearl Harbor

Kazuo Sakamaki was the first Japanese prisoner of war captured by American forces in WWII when his midget submarine ran aground during the attack. 

Sakamaki visited St. Paul and spoke to a few Pearl Harbor veterans. 

Thill said he didn't hold any ill will toward him.   

"He's a Navy guy doing his duty for his country. He didn't have any choice," he said. 

Why he enlisted

It was all because of a hat. 

Richard Thill at 18
Richard Thill at 18.
Courtesy of Richard Thill

Thill said he was 16 and "liked the idea of having a Navy cap, a white hat."

"I thought that'd be cool to have," he said. 

"I was just a kid, a 16-year-old kid, foolish," he said. "Teenagers are weird people." 

His father asked an officer in the Naval Reserve, who told him the only way he could get one was to join the reserve. 

So his father embellished Thill's age to 17, and he enlisted. 

"I got my hat. I got the whole uniform. And then, of course, the responsibility comes with it," he said.

He gets fan mail

At his St. Paul home is a big pile of letters from around the world.

"All these people want my autograph," he said.     

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed to this report.