Nember 6, 2000
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
On a December day in 1941, a woman stood at a newsstand.
"What's this?" she asked the newspaper vendor while pointing to the bold and blaring headlines.
"We're at war, lady, for crying out loud," he said.
"Well, what do you know," she said. "With whom?"
When Japan suddenly attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Americans were caught off guard. Most were surprised and many didn't believe the news at first. But when they realized it was true, Americans were stunned, outraged, angered and saddened.
Ervin Lawler, a resident at Brittany Park in Woodinville, recalled the day when he heard of Japan's sneak attack. He found it hard to believe. At that time in his life, he was a Navy airplane mechanic stationed in Iceland. Lawler was resting up from convoy duty.
When the news was announced over speakers on his ship, he and his buddies thought it was a joke. He remembered that everyone thought the announcer might have had a little too much homemade alcohol. "We didn't believe it," he said.
But soon Lawler, along with every other American, knew it wasn't a joke. And in the spring of 1942, he was on the USS Wichita, a heavy cruiser headed for Russia, and taking part in a convoy ‹ a ploy to lure German ships out of ports in Norway.
But the ploy backfired and the German ships didn't come out of the ports. Instead, German submarines came out to meet the convoy.
Radar was poor in those days, Lawler said, and out of the 30 merchant ships that accompanied the convoy of warships, only eight made it back to Britain.
All the rest were sunk by German submarines. While the convoy was in the Arctic Circle, torpedoes slammed a British destroyer and Lawler witnessed the sight from his ship.
The destroyer lit up in flames and the ocean became coated with oil. British sailors jumped overboard to escape and were caught in the black oily slime in the water.
The men desperately tried to swim to the ship Lawler was on but never made it.
Tom McMahon was also in the Navy during World War II and has several things in common with Lawler. Not only is he a fellow resident at Brittany Park, but he's also a former Navy pilot.
Remembering the day he heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor McMahon said, "When Pearl Harbor happened, there was a rush to get in and join the service. Everyone was mad."
McMahon, though, was already on active duty as an aviation cadet in Corpus Christi, Texas.
In February of 1942, McMahon got his wings and by 1943 was facing his share of danger. He was a part of a fleet squadron, doing anti-submarine patrols in the Caribbean. McMahon flew his plane in 12- to 14-hour stretches in search of enemy submarines.
As the war dragged on, he was transferred to the Pacific in February 1945, where he was involved in air-sea rescue searching for downed planes.
To execute a rescue, McMahon had to land his plane, a PBM Mariner, at sea.
"There's always a risk anytime you land on open sea," he said.
The risk, he explained, is that a pilot could land so hard, an engine could drop off.
And take-off from the water isn't a piece of cake either. He added, "You need to go fast enough to get airborne."
After World War II, both Lawler and McMahon went on to serve in the Korean War ‹ Lawler as a jet flight instructor in Taiwan, and McMahon as a flight instructor in Seattle training others for operational work.
During the course of Lawler's twenty-six year military service, he flew thirty-four different types of aircraft, was an officer for the last ten years of his service and retired in 1966. In 1974 he graduated from the University of Washington along with his twenty-one-year-old daughter.
McMahon had nine and a half years on active duty before retiring from the service.
"Then I was back out in the cold world," he joked.
Today, McMahon looks forward to his sixtieth wedding anniversary. His wife, Joyce, caught his eye fifty-nine years ago when he was working in the retail business in Seattle, before World War II erupted. She was working in a wholesale business that he dealt with.
"I kind of liked the looks of the little blonde in the front window," he said smiling.
On Saturday, Nov. 11, the United States observes Veterans Day. The U.S. holiday pays tribute to Navy Commander McMahon and Navy Lieutenant Lawler and all other servicemen and women, living or dead, who fought in wars since World War I.
Many as in the case of Lawler and McMahon fought with courage and honor for America's freedom.