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Issue 665

11/07/2013 at 3:02pm

Retired Chief Petty Officer Russ WinsettVeteran’s Day Spotlight
A Day That Will Live in Infamy

In honor of Veteran's Day this year, the Sand Paper was fortunate enough to interview a man who spent 20 years in service to his country - most of it after he survived one of the worst attacks in this nation's history, Pearl Harbor. Retired Chief Petty Officer Russ Winsett was just 21 years old and only a year and a half into his enlistment when the U.S. was thrust into the brutality of World War II, but he remembers it like it was yesterday.

"I was born on March 4, 1920 in Hamilton, Alabama, to a family of farmers,” the spry 93-year-old told us from his home in Bonita Springs. "I got tired of farming, so I decided to find better work by enlisting in the Navy in August of 1940.”

After boot camp, Winsett was sent to Bremerton, Washington, where he got on a ship and sailed to Hawaii where he was assigned to the USS Pennsylvania. The thing he remembers most about December 7, 1941 is that it was supposed to be his day off.

"I got to Pearl Harbor late in 1940 and spent most of my time going out on maneuvers,” he said. "I had a cousin whose family was there, and - since he was out at sea - on December 7th his wife and three boys were going to take me sightseeing around the island for the first time.”

Russ's relaxing day was cut short when - five minutes before he was supposed to leave his ship - the sound of bombs exploding shattered the peaceful morning and the sky was filled with Japanese planes.

"I didn’t know what the hell happened,” he said. "All I knew was that the Japs were attacking. You knew it was them because the planes were so close you could see the pilots. You could see the red sun on their flags.”

Winsett told us that his training immediately kicked in and that he wasn't scared until it was all over.

"I ran to my machine gun post and just started firing,” he said. "I really had no idea of everything that happened until it was all over. Then we realized they had made two raids, and no one knew when or if they were going to come back - that was scary.”

The Pennsylvania was fortunate, losing only 10 men despite taking a direct hit. In the end,

2,400 Americans died and another 1,250 were wounded. Four battleships went down, as did three other ships and 188 aircraft. Winsett's family was actually sent a letter in error saying that he was among those lost - a letter he still has.

"It's framed and hanging on my wall,” he said, chuckling at the idea that he is still kicking 72 years after the Navy had him buried at sea.

They would have more chances to make that declaration true because it turned out that Pearl Harbor was just the beginning of Winsett's harrowing adventures during the war.

"We left Pearl Harbor two days later and sailed to the states, where I got on the destroyer, USS Foote,” he told us. "We went to Casablanca to join a convoy of ships, and got hit by a torpedo after coming back through the Panama Canal into the Pacific.”

After that, Russ was assigned to a communications ship. He would go on to survive a total nine engagements with the enemy and witness one of the most powerful moments of the war.

"I saw them raise the flag on Iwo Jima,” he told us. "Too bad I didn't have a camera - I might be famous right now.”

Winsett remained in the Navy after the war, serving until 1960 when he retired - eventually becoming a postmaster in New Jersey. He first came to southwest Florida with his wife in 1973 to get out of the cold weather.

"We came down here in a travel trailer and we loved it so much we bought one without wheels,” he said. "When she passed on, I went back to New Jersey for awhile until my son convinced me to come back so he could help me rattle around.”

These days, Winsett hangs out with his son and enjoys a nip or two. After all those years in the Navy, he says he's pretty much done being on boats.

"The only use I have for the water is showering or drinking - and I only drink it if it's got scotch in it,” he told us, laughing.

Russ will be getting on at least one more boat, however - thanks to Ted Schindler, he will be the Honorary Grand Marshal at this year's Chamber of Commerce Christmas Boat Parade, which will be held on the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Parade will begin at Salty Sam's Marina at 6pm on December 7th, 2013, and wind through the back bay and around Bowditch Point before returning to the marina. Both boats and house parties along the parade route can be entered in the parade for prizes. The Pieces of Eight Pirate Ship and Fort Myers Princess will offer parade cruises. For more information, contact the Chamber of Commerce, 454-7500.

"I searched and searched for a veteran of Pearl Harbor, then finally someone answered one of the letters I placed in the local papers,” Schindler told us. "I spoke to Winsett on the phone, and he agreed to come with his friend Steve Slachta, who is a retired US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel.”

Russ told us he would also be accompanied by his son, who is giving him a ride to the event.

"He has to - it would take too long for me to get there in my wheelchair,” he quipped. "I'm 93 and still kicking, but I don't kick that high anymore.”

Keri Hendry Weeg