Pearl Harbor veteran Jim Gailey dies at 88
BY TIM STANLEY World Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2012
8/12/12 at 6:35 PM
MUSKOGEE - The battleship anchored just across the waters of Pearl Harbor from Jim Gailey's own cruiser kept catching his eye.
It was too incredibly majestic, for one thing, not to look at.
But more than that, it made the young seaman think of home.
Named after his native state, the USS Oklahoma would remain moored nearby, where Gailey could see it clearly from the decks of his ship, the smaller USS Helena.
But not all his memories of the mighty craft were destined to be good ones: Those same decks would also afford him a front-row seat to its fiery demise.
Among the battleships destroyed during the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma would be torpedoed four times on Dec. 7, 1941.
During the attack, Gailey saw many of its displaced crew members swimming to his ship, where they instantly took up fighting positions.
Gailey would go on to survive Pearl Harbor and the war. But he never forgot the images from the day, and recently they came flooding back again.
In June 2010, when a section of the mast from the Oklahoma was added to the monuments at Muskogee's War Memorial Park, Gailey was on hand for the installation.
The experience was emotional for him, he told the Tulsa World. The mast was a tie to history, "a piece of Pearl Harbor," he said.
A World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor who shared his war stories with many audiences over the last few years, James Russell Gailey Sr. of Muskogee died Aug. 6. He was 88.
A service was held Friday at Eastside Community Church in Muskogee with burial afterward at Fort Gibson National Cemetery. Foster- Petering Funeral Home was in charge of arrangements.
A native of Commerce, Gailey enlisted in the Navy in 1941. His ship, the Helena, arrived at Pearl Harbor later that year in November.
A signal man on an anti-aircraft gun mount, Gailey would describe Japan's assault on Pearl "as like a swarm of hornets attacking - you could just fire your guns in the air and hit something," his son, Jim Gailey Jr., said.
The Helena was one of the first ships to take a torpedo that day but would otherwise come through in one piece. About 20 of Gailey's crewmates died.
After Pearl Harbor, between the Helena and the USS Chase, to which he was later assigned, Gailey would see action in numerous Pacific battles, including Guadalcanal and Okinawa. The Helena eventually would be sunk in the Battle of Kula Gulf, but fortunately for Gailey, it was after his transfer.
Awarded several service and campaign medals, he remained in the Navy for 20 years, serving for a while as a Navy recruiter in Muskogee.
Retiring with the rank of senior chief quartermaster, he worked for Corning Glass Works in Muskogee, from which he retired in 1984.
He was an active, 40-year member, elder and occasional minister at Eastside Community Church, and volunteered with various local charities.
For years, Gailey didn't talk about the war. But about a decade ago "he began to come out of his shell," his son said, accepting regular invites to speak to schools and civic groups about his experiences.
In February 2009, Gailey was honored by the state as Veteran of the Week.
Last December, in Honolulu, he joined fellow veterans for the commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
With friends from church paying his way, Gailey and a few other vets would be chosen to serve as Grand Marshals in the anniversary parade.
"Dad really enjoyed himself. He got to ride in this bright red Corvette. He thought he was pretty tall stuff," his son laughed.
Finally, this June, Gailey accompanied his son to Washington, D.C., to visit the National World War II Memorial, courtesy of Oklahoma Honor Flights.
His health was failing and "at the last minute, I told him I didn't know if he should go. But he said he was going if it had to be on a stretcher," Gailey Jr. said, adding that they compromised on a wheelchair.
"As one of the last things he got to do, the trip was especially meaningful."
Gailey's survivors include his wife of 37 years, Theresa Gailey; a son, James R. Gailey Jr.; two daughters, Vicki Murray and Susan Smith; eight grandchildren; and 17 great-grandchildren.
Original Print Headline: WWII survivor held front-row seat to history
Tim Stanley 918-581-8385
Jim Gailey, a Pearl Harbor survivor, watches as part of the mast of the USS Oklahoma is returned to the state and the Muskogee War Memorial Park and Museum on June 23, 2010. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World file