Veteran Alum Who Survived Historic Attack Served his Country and Continues Serving SDSU
Woody Derby ('61, '66) as a new recruit.
It was his third anniversary of joining the United States Navy and Woody Derby (’61, ’66) wasn’t expecting anything special. He had come to the service December 7, 1938 about a year and a half after graduating high school. Growing up in an Iowa farming community, he had never even seen the ocean, but the service had offered the promise of regular work, which was tough to come by in the rural Midwest during the Great Depression.
He had been pleased to receive an assignment aboard the battleship USS Nevada, which he and several friends from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center had requested. Derby had sailed with the Nevada throughout the Pacific and had arrived in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 5, 1941 to join many of its sister ships in what was referred to as “battleship row.”
“We were all lined up along there,” Derby recalls. “The Nevada, the Arizona, the West Virginia, Tennessee, the Oklahoma, Maryland - the California was down just a little further. But the Pennsylvania was in dry dock, so that's all the ships we had in the Pacific at that time.”
So on the morning of December 7, Derby was in his bunk on the Nevada’s third deck reading the Sunday paper. That was when an alarm sounded that most on board assumed was a drill.
Derby collects memorabilia depicting the Pearl Harbor attack.
“They said, 'All hands general quarters! Man your battle stations!'” Derby remembers. “We all said, 'Oh, what the hell's going on Sunday morning? Don't do that on Sunday.' But nevertheless, you do what you're supposed to and we went to our battle stations.”
He scrambled down two more decks to his post. His job was supplying ammunition.
"I was five decks down and when I got there I didn't know what was going on," Derby says. "The phone sounded and they said, 'Send up ammunition!' and we asked, 'Do you want practice ammunition or do you want battle ammunition?’ When they said they wanted regular live ammunition, then I knew something was going on."
What was going on was the surprise attack by Japanese planes on the Navy’s base at Pearl Harbor. The Nevada was soon hit by both a bomb and a torpedo.
“When the torpedo hit, my magazine started to flood and I went up to the third deck and I worked with the damage control party the rest of the day,” Derby says. He maintained his frantic pace until late afternoon when he was finally able to emerge from below deck.
“I got up topside about 4:30 and I looked down the channel and all I could see was fire and smoke from these planes and the ships that had been hit,” he remembers, “and I said, 'Somebody's going to catch hell for this.'”
Derby in his Navy days.
FROM THE NAVY TO SDSU
Derby spent 17 more years in the Navy including several more years on the Nevada, which was repaired after the attack. When he left the service at the age of 40, he was living in San Diego with his wife, Christine, a former WAVE, and their two daughters, Ellen and Carolyn.
With the help of the GI Bill, he enrolled in San Diego State and completed his degree in three years. “I was pleased with the way things went,” Derby says of his college experience. So pleased, in fact, that he returned to San Diego State to earn a master’s degree.
After teaching San Diego elementary and middle school students for 21 years, Derby retired almost three decades ago. Now 93 years old, he and Christine recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
Daughters Carolyn and Ellen both followed their parents’ examples of careers in service to their country and communities. Carolyn served as a colonel in the Army and Ellen became a teacher. Both attended San Diego State. The Derbys also have a granddaughter who graduated from SDSU and now teaches in the Bay Area.
GIVING BACK AND GOING BACK
Derby attends a recent Pearl Harbor survivors reunion.
Derby, who is a lifetime member of the SDSU Alumni Association, plays down his family’s legacy of service, insisting it was never something discussed or planned. “It just worked out that way,” he says.
To this day, more than 50 years since his graduation, Derby still donates to SDSU’s College of Education. “It just makes sense” is all he’ll say about the financial contributions.
Recently, College of Education Dean Ric Hovda met with Derby to personally thank him for the support he has shown the university.
“We're very appreciative and wanted to let him know how much it means to us that he's been there year in and year out for many, many years," says Hovda. "I think his support traces back to the fact that the college made a tremendous difference in his life at a very important turning point when he had to make some decisions about the next phase of his life. Because of that and because of his appreciation for that, he finds a way every year to give back.”
Derby with his wife, Christine in October 2011.
Derby finds a way to not only give back, but to go back. Over the years he has attended reunions of USS Nevada Pearl Harbor survivors. In December he and Christine plan to return to Hawaii for the 70th anniversary observance of the Pearl Harbor attack. They will place a wreath at a memorial to remember friends and fellow service members who died there on that fateful Sunday.
Derby says he was one of only four USS Nevada survivors at the last Pearl Harbor gathering. He’s not sure how many will make it this year.
This month, as our nation honors its veterans, it seems those like Woody Derby who have displayed a true spirit of service over the course of a lifetime are increasingly rare. SDSU is fortunate it still has the original.