By Ashly McGlone
SAN LEANDRO -- When 22-year-old Seaman Mickey Ganitch got a phone call seven minutes before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941 telling him the Japanese were attacking, he did not believe it.
"I said 'Oh come on, forget it,' because we had been talking about it. Really, we didn't think anybody would try anything," said Ganitch, now 93. "About that time, the ship shuddered."
Men above deck near the guns had begun firing rounds at the inbound planes.
Ganitch was below deck near his sleeping quarters at the rear of the battleship USS Pennsylvania. It was the day of the big game, the football fleet championship against the USS Arizona, and Ganitch and his shipmates were about to head out to a scrimmage that Sunday morning. They were already dressed in their football uniforms and protective padding.
"'All hands man your battle stations,'" Ganitch recalls hearing loud and clear over the intercom system. There was no time to be afraid, he said.
Ganitch's bravery that day, and his service to his country over the following years, brought him a special honor recently. The Ohio native and 40-year resident of San Leandro was named the 2013 10th Senate District Veteran of the Year last month by state Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett.
Today he spends much of his time volunteering with a long list of veteran groups, his church and speaking to school children and other groups about his experience and offering encouraging words. He had 40 speaking engagements last year alone.
"God had other plans for me, and I figured I've got to do it while I'm still young," Ganitch said chuckling.
After enlisting in the U.S. Navy in January 1941 at Oakland's Lake Merritt post office, Ganitch went on to serve 23 years, fighting in 28 battles, including in the Korean War working on an ammunition ship. For a time, he was assigned shore duty in Point Loma, San Diego.
But it was the December morning in 1941 he remembers vividly. Ganitch's battle station was in the crow's nest, a tower 70 feet in the air on the other side of the ship.
"All my (football) padding on there, it was kind of a tight squeeze," Ganitch said. "You had a little trap door that I had to pull myself through. ... By the time I got up there, I could see ships were burning there. Buildings were burning.
"It was like a nightmare."
Enemy planes flew below his position to drop torpedoes, and in the distance he spotted a plane coming over the top of the buildings. He reported the position to gun control, and they readied their guns.
"They knocked it down," he said. "If they hadn't trained the guns around there when the plane got there, it'd be too late."
He saw the battleship Oklahoma sink a few hundred yards away in the span of 20 minutes. Its hatches had all been open for inspection, he said.
Looking back, there were a number of factors that prevented the loss of all 1,500 men on his ship. For one, his ship was in dry dock for propeller repairs and with no water beneath them, they were out of reach of the torpedoes. The Navy's aircraft carriers were scheduled to be in port but were delayed due to bad weather, preventing the third wave of attack from the Japanese, he said.
When an air strike dropped a 500-pound bomb on the USS Pennsylvania, its horizontal path came just 45 feet from Ganitch's post before exploding on the two decks below.
"Just a little touch of wind," would have made a difference, Ganitch said. That wasn't his only close call during the service.
The USS Pennsylvania was repaired and sent to Buckner Bay off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, after the attack and on Aug. 12, 1945 was hit with a torpedo. Ganitch would normally have been in the wheelhouse, where his comrades died from the blast, but he had gone to write a letter to his older sister, Helen. It was the last large ship hit before Japan asked the United States for peace, he said.
In a statement, Corbett said Ganitch "embodies the essence and spirit of a patriot," adding that he "continues to advocate tirelessly on behalf of active military service members, as well as veterans and their families and honors daily the sacrifices endured by those that died in battle."
His service continues through his work with the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, the American Legion, the Fleet Reserve, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Honor Guard and the Veterans Home of Yountville, where he helps counsel veterans and this month coordinated their trip to a Giants game.
Ganitch, married nearly 50 years to his wife, Barbara, said he has to make the most of the life he is fortunate to have.
"I am proud of this uniform," said Ganitch, wearing his Pearl Harbor survivor's parade uniform. "I am proud of my service. For better, for worse, this is the best country there is."
Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro, San Lorenzo, San Ramon and the Washington Township Health Care District. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.