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The Connecticut Man Who Fired the First American Shots of World War Two on December 7, 1941

By Philip R. Devlin

“…This battery was the first unit of the entire United States Army to open fire in the present war with Japan, and the first Army unit to bring down a plane.”

—Windsor Locks Journal April 23, 1942

(December 6, 2023) — Few people in my hometown of Windsor Locks know about the significance of the actions of a friend of my father, First Lieutenant Herb Garilli of 1 Wicklow Street, on December 7, 1941, during the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, an attack that brought America into the biggest war in history.

On that fateful Sunday morning at about 8:00 a.m., Japanese planes began attacking the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. At Garilli’s command, Sgt. Casimir Jankauskas of Chicago and Corporal Charles D. Keith of Charlottesville, Virginia fired the first American shots of the war using a .50 caliber machine gun located at Fort Kamehameha, a coastal artillery battery located next to the channel entrance to Pearl Harbor and near Hickam Airfield at the southern tip of Oahu. Garilli’s battery shot down the first two Japanese planes of the war, including the Japanese Zero fighter pictured below.

Lt. Garilli had received his first military training while a member of the ROTC program at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Herb later transferred to Fordham University in New York City, where he continued to be in ROTC. Following his graduation from Fordham, with a B.S. in science, Herb Garilli worked as an engineer for the Connecticut Light and Power Company until he got called back into military service in 1940 when President Roosevelt instituted a military draft in anticipation of war.

Lt. Garilli was assigned to be part of a Coastal Artillery Corps (CAC) unit to guard the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor. The CAC was an administrative corps of the Army responsible for coastal, harbor, and anti-aircraft defense of the United States and its possessions between 1901 and 1950.

Garilli’s unit was part of a 155 mm battery group stationed at Fort Kamehameha in Oahu (image above), a fort named after the first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii who died in May of 1819 at the estimated age of 58. Lt. Garilli ordered his men to commence firing at 8:06 a.m. local time, right at the beginning of the attack. The letter of commendation that Lt. Garilli received stated that the actions of his entire battery “showed a fine fighting spirit and discipline.”

Following the war, Herb Garilli distinguished himself repeatedly as a rehabilitation counselor at the Hartford office of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation; in fact, on April 15, 1967, the Hartford Courant ran a lengthy article explaining how Garilli had helped a Thompsonville man who had suffered from polio-induced paralysis and had injured his right leg so badly that it was next to impossible for him to hold a job to support his family. Herb Garilli found the right mix of counseling and training to get this man a supervisory job with Goodwill Industries and turned his life around. The Courant article goes on to mention other cases in “Garilli’s file” in which he turned despair into hope for many other clients.

Besides distinguishing himself as a counselor, Herb and his Wicklow Street friend and neighbor, Bob Harvey, were the principal driving forces behind the establishment of the local VFW on Fairview Street in Windsor Locks in the 1950s, where both served as officers at various times. Herb served as the marshal of the 1954 Centennial Parade in Windsor Locks, as well as secretary of the Memorial Hall Committee. He retired from the Army as a captain and was a member of the National Retired Officers Club as well as a member of the Pearl Harbor Attack Veterans of Westfield, Massachusetts.

Along with his sister, Frances, Herb was a graduate of the Windsor Locks High School Class of 1930, where he had played football for four years with future collegiate All-American, Dr. Pete Lingua, a veterinarian who, among other things, took care of General George Patton’s horses for a time during World War II!

Herb Garilli, the lieutenant who had ordered the first shots of World War II to be fired at attacking Japanese fighter planes at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, sadly died unexpectedly at his home in early February of 1971, leaving behind his heartbroken mother, Mrs. Andrew Garilli, his wife, Alice, and his two sisters, Frances and Gloria. He was just 59 years old.

Garilli photo from Windsor Locks Journal, April 23, 1942

Map from Wikipedia

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