Maury Gatewood, who died last Sunday at age 94, had a front-row center seat at the start of World War II.
He was a radio operator aboard the Navy destroyer Ward, which fired the first American shot as the Japanese attack began at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
It was 6:40 a.m., and most of Hawaii was still asleep. The first wave of Japanese bombers wouldn’t appear in the skies for more than a hour.
But Mr. Gatewood and the men of the Ward already were at war. And their first shot was a miss.
They fired after seeing what looked like a tiny periscope jutting out of the water. It turned out to be a mini Japanese submarine headed toward the entrance of Pearl Harbor.
The Ward’s second shot, from its 4-inch “waist gun,” struck the base of the sub’s tower. The sub pitched onto its side and sank.
Mr. Gatewood ran to the radio room with a message for the 14th Naval District Headquarters at Pearl: “We have attacked, fired upon and dropped depth charges on a submarine operating in defensive sea area.”
Mr. Gatewood told the story to the Post-Dispatch in 2002. By then, he was a grandfather and retired from his job as a vice president at what is now Ameren. His wife of 59 years, Sophie, had died the year before.
Maurice Elmo Gatewood died Sept. 9, 2012, at Laclede Groves nursing home in Webster Groves. He was a longtime resident of the Tower Grove neighborhood.
He was born in East St. Louis in 1917, the youngest of four children. His father was a clerk for International Harvester. When Maury was a year old, his mother died in an influenza epidemic.
He wanted to join the Scouts, but his family couldn’t afford the scarf and shirt.
The family moved to north St. Louis, and Maury graduated from Beaumont High School in 1935.
He enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to work a new invention called “radar.” Since he was low man in the unit, he was given the radar and told to figure it out.
By early December 1941, Mr. Gatewood was making plans to return to St. Louis for Christmas, hopefully to get married.
On Dec. 6, the day before the Japanese attack, many of the destroyer’s 130 men, including the three other radio operators, left for shore leave.
Mr. Gatewood, an untested yeoman, stayed aboard.
The Ward was joined by three other destroyers, largely manned by St. Louis-area reservists.
When crew members spotted the tiny periscope about 6:40 a.m., the Ward fired a shot, and a second that hit dead center.
“I remember the gun captain saying he used that gun like a squirrel rifle,” Mr. Gatewood recalled.
He remained in the radio room for more than hour trying to make headquarters understand that the Ward had just engaged the enemy.
“Is this a drill?” came the reply.
“No,” Gatewood sent, “this is not a drill.”
He repeated the message, but headquarters never acted upon the warning.
Just before 8 a.m., headquarters sent this message:
“We are being bombed.”
Mr. Gatewood raced to the bridge and looked up.
Japanese planes were everywhere. “You could see the meatballs,” he said, meaning the rising sun symbols on the enemy bombers.
The planes mostly ignored the small, poorly armed Ward and aimed for the big battleships sitting in the harbor.
Mr. Gatewood saw the stack of the battleship Arizona as it sank in a tower of flames.
“Chaos,” he said. “We fired a couple of shots, but we didn’t hit anything.”
Why was the fleet never alerted to the sinking of the submarine an hour before the air attack?
Mr. Gatewood maintained that blaming anyone would be unfair. It was peacetime, he said. “Who could have expected 200 enemy airplanes to fly over at 8 o’clock?”
Back in St. Louis, Mr. Gatewood married and earned an electrical engineering and later a law degree at St. Louis University. He started as an engineer at Ameren, became a purchasing agent and retired in 1982 as a vice president.
For more than 60 years, historians doubted the sinking of the sub. The controversy ended in 2002 when scientists found the submarine in 1,200 feet of water.
At last there was evidence that the Ward had fired the first American shot of the war in the Pacific.
“Why didn’t they just ask me?” Mr. Gatewood said with a smile. “I was there.”
Visitation is 3 p.m. - 8 p.m. today at Kutis City Chapel, 2906 Gravois Avenue. Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Monday at Cure of Ars Church, 670 South Laclede Station Road, Shrewsbury. Burial will be at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
Among the survivors are a son, Robert Gatewood of Denver; two daughters, Diane Bohner of St. Louis and Mary Ann Stotler of south St. Louis County; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.