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Classrooms: Amherst High students relive ‘date in infamy’ from 1938 grad

  • Len Gardner of Virginia, a 1938 graduate of Amherst High School and a Pearl Harbor survivor, is introduced as his yearbook picture is projected behind him at an Amherst Regional High School assembly last Thursday. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pearl Harbor survivor Len Gardner, a 1938 graduate of Amherst High School who now lives in Virginia, recites the Pledge of Allegiance with the Amherst Regional High School body before speaking to an assembly on Thursday, May 10, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Len Gardner chats with his son-in-law Jon Sherry, also of Virginia, just before the wind ensemble welcomed him with “Anchors Aweigh” for his appearance at the assembly. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Len Gardner of Virginia, a 1938 graduate of Amherst High School, recounts his experience surviving the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor to an Amherst Regional High School assembly on Thursday, May 10, 2018. At left is a photo of him with Navy buddies. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Gardner is shown at lower left in an undated photo with his Navy buddies. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Gardner accepts gifts from student hosts Amherst Regional sophomores Isabela Shepard, left, Kabir Narayanan and junior Austin Xiong, right. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Len Gardner, a 1938 graduate of Amherst High School who now lives in Virginia, recounts his experience surviving the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor to an Amherst Regional High School assembly on Thursday, May 10, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Len Gardner of Virginia, a 1938 graduate of Amherst High School, recounts his experience surviving the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor to an Amherst Regional High School assembly last Thursday. Projected behind him is a composite photo of Japanese Emperor Hirohito and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Pearl Harbor survivor Len Gardner, a 1938 graduate of Amherst High School who now lives in Virginia, takes questions from students hosts Amherst Regional sophomore Kabir Narayanan, left, junior Austin Xiong and sophomore Isabela Shepard during a school assembly on Thursday, May 10, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Len Gardner and his wife of 71 years, Doris, of Virginia, chat with students on stage at Amherst Regional High School last Thursday. Gardner, a 1938 graduate of Amherst, was presented with a pen and ink drawing of the high school entrance after speaking about his experience. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Len Gardner, a 1938 graduate of Amherst High School and Pearl Harbor survivor, is shown at lower left in an undated photo with Navy buddies. Gardner, who now lives in Virginia, recounted his experience surviving the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor to an Amherst Regional High School assembly on Thursday, May 10, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2018

An alarm sounding was the first indication to Leonard Gardner that something was terribly wrong. Moments later, the teenage Gardner caught sight of a military plane with a red ball painted on its wing. Then bombs began falling from an otherwise tranquil sky.

As a signalman aboard the destroyer USS Reid during the Japanese aerial assault on the fleet stationed at the Pearl Harbor military base, Gardner witnessed one of 183 enemy planes in the first wave of the surprise attack, followed by 167 more planes in the second wave.

With the planes and their weapons making too much noise and creating too many disruptions for him to continue doing his work, Gardner was ordered to go below to wake up the crew sleeping in on a Sunday morning.

“You can imagine the reception I got when trying to wake them up,” Gardner said. “I might as well have told them Martians were landing.”

But soon enough crew members were active, with gunners on board his ship and others firing at everything in the air. “If a bird flew over, it became a target,” Gardner said.

The Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor is an event every high school student learns about in history class, but it’s a rare opportunity to meet and listen to a person involved in what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.”

On a recent morning, though, Amherst Regional High School students gathered in the school’s auditorium to meet the now 96-year-old Gardner, an Amherst native who offered insights into both the attack and his later military experience during World War II.

Gardner, who makes his home in Virginia with his wife of 71 years, Doris, was back in his hometown last week to receive an honorary degree as a doctor of public service at the University of Massachusetts, where, following the war, he earned a history degree.

Gardner told the students that it was a frightening situation, even as the ship got out of the harbor and into the open sea, he and his crewmates had no idea of what they would encounter, and whether the mainland United States was also being attacked.

“Confusion and chaos was rampant,” Gardner said.

He brought students back to a time when immediate communication was impossible.

“There was no TV news, there was no instant pictures of far-away wars,” Gardner said.

Even his own family had no idea for three weeks about whether he was safe or not. “Can you imagine their anguish?” he said.

Two days after Pearl Harbor was hit, the USS Reid returned, and Gardner served much of the war in the Pacific theater on board the ship, which was sunk in December 1944, though Gardner was not on board at the time.

Before Gardner recounted and answered questions, the wind ensemble, under the direction of Kara Nye, played the Navy’s marching song, “Anchors Aweigh,” and students recited The Pledge of Allegiance.

Gardner graduated at 16 in 1938, deciding to join the Navy rather than continue to be a clerk at The Grange store in downtown Amherst. It’s a choice that he never regretted, even as he understood that the United States might be brought into the conflict.

“Every man, woman and child old enough to participate participated in World War II,” Gardner said.

Describing Adolf Hitler, Germany’s leader, as “our Darth Vader of the time,” Gardner said, “Our western civilization and our way of life was in trouble.”

“The Japanese, like the Germans, believed they were a superior race, and treated their prisoners as such, as subordinate to their race,” Gardner said.

Before he left the assembly, students presented him with a high school T-shirt and cap and a framed ink-and-pen drawing of the main entrance to the high school.

“It was an honor to have him here. I was in awe,” said Isabela Shepard, a 16-year-old sophomore from Amherst who served as one of the hosts.

Shepard said Gardner’s presentation brought an event taught in history class to life.

“It’s different to hear it from someone it happened to,” Shepard said. “It touches us a lot more than if it’s just a teacher teaching us.”

Austin Xiong, a 17-year-old junior from Amherst, said he appreciated that Gardner brought so many details that aren’t in the history textbooks, such as describing specific details on board the ship.

“It’s extra special that he’s part of our Amherst community,” Xiong said.

KabirNarayanan, 16, a sophomore from Amherst, said he was interested in the details of what happened during the war in town.

“It had a lot of resonance hearing about the homefront family and students getting out of school,” Narayanan said. “It’s clear he has a lot to say,” he added.

Eye-opening experience

Gardner said he doesn’t recall a similar opportunity to hear from a veteran when he was in high school, even though those from the then recent conflicts, such as the Spanish-American War and World War I, lived in town.

“But maybe nobody asked them. I appreciate you’re asking me.”

Gardner said he remembers aging veterans when he was a youth.

“When I was your age there were Civil War veterans still living in Amherst,” Gardner said. “They’d come out on Memorial Day on the Town Common and watch the parade.”

Amherst has changed a bit since those days, with the high school building he attended long gone, and UMass much more built up.

“I don’t even recognize the campus,” Gardner said

He told students that being in the service gave him appreciation for the world, and he is glad that the returning veterans also led to the opening up colleges and universities to the general population, through the GI Bill.

“I think it’s safe to say World War II was a milestone in the history of the modern world,” Gardner said.

Eva Katsoulakis, a 16-year-old sophomore from Amherst, spent several days creating the illustration for Gardner. She said it was the first chance to meet a World War II veteran, noting that his talk supplemented her previous knowledge.

“Hearing it from an eyewitness was eye-opening,” Katsoulakis said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.