“God, Please Get Us Out Of This”

The world was my oyster that Sunday morning in December, 1941. I was nineteen, breakfast was over, and liberty would be starting in an hour or so. A quick look ont a second-deck porthole of our battleship, the U.S.S. Oklahoma, confirmed my feeling that this was going to be a glorious day. There were still some early morning clouds, but the sun was warm, with just a breath of trade wind ruffling the waters of the harbor. I turned to swab down the deck around me. Someone had spilled coffee there.

I would be happy to get this three-month tour of mess-cooking over with so that I could get back on deck again. Topside had been my cleaning station for the past year, ever since I had come on board ship in Long Beach. I liked being out in the weather, scrubbing and holystoning decks, scraping and painting the bulkheads or gun-turret sides, shining brightwork, splicing line, rigging boat booms, and working at the aviation crane, aft. I had made seaman-first as soon as I was eligible and expected to make cox’n in the spring. But I often wondered whether I should strike for gunner’s mate instead. The 14-inch guns in the division’s massive No. 4 turret aft fascinated me. My battle station was in the upper starboard powder-hoist room where we rolled the heavy powder bags through flameproof doors into the turret chamber to feed the guns.

The Oklahoma was old, but she had a kind of dignity, with her broad beam and tripod masts. The home of a thousand sailors, she had never fired a gun in anger, not even in World War I. Her cruising speed was only ten knots or so, but when she left the Golden Gate behind and began to push her ponderous bulk into the Pacific swells, you could feel her strength. I was proud to be a sailor in her crew.

All non-rated hands had Io take their turn as mess cooks before going up for a rate. It was compulsory, but I had managed to avoid it until I had no choice. Now, only a few more weeks remained of lugging steaming tureens of chow up and down ladders from the midship galley to the living compartment aft where the fourth-deck division messed as well as slept. It always seemed a long way back and forth to our fantail hatch, a trip I made a dozen or so times a meal, not counting runs for seconds. But in a heavy sea, while balancing a tureen of soup in one hand and a platter of baked ham in the other, it seemed even longer. Setting up tables and carrying racks of dirty dishes to the scullery was no fun either, but the six of us who had the duty worked hard and made the best of it. It had been pretty easy this morning, for the boys had been on the town in Honolulu last night and were sleeping late. Everyone was up now, though, and I was anxious to make that first liberty launch ashore. One of my buddies grinned, “Don’t hurry, your girl will wait.”

“We’re going on a picnic,” I told him, as, together, we heaved up the last mess table and secured it.

My girl and I were going to Nanakuli, where the surf was much better than Waikiki and the beach not nearly so crowded. For once I had plenty of money—a ten and a one-dollar bill. Nice going at fifty-four bucks a month with a week of the month already gone.

The compartment rocked with shouts and laughter—with only a muffled undertone of growls from the duty-section men who had to stay ou board and derive most of their day’s amusement from the Sunday funnies.

I looked at my watch. Two minutes to morning colors. I started toward my locker.

Suddenly the bugle blared over the PA system. The sound filled the compartment. The first few notes told me it was not colors or calling away a motor launch. I stopped and listened. It was the call for gun crews to man their antiaircraft stations. The word was passed, “Man the antiaircraft batteries!” Not my station, I thought. And what a crazy time to hold a drill!

“What’s going on?” we asked each other. But no one knew, and we returned to whatever we had been doing.

Again the bugle tore the air. Now it was the call to general quarters! A voice boomed throughout the ship—“All hands, man your battle stations!” What the hell was this? Drills on Sunday? They knew we were all waiting to go ashore.

The harsh, excited voice on the PA system froze us in our tracks. “All hands, man your battle stations! On the double! This is no drill! Get going—they’re real bombs!”

I headed for my turret battle station. Everyone was running and pushing. The ship shuddered as she was hit somewhere forward. I stumbled, but managed to stay on my feet. The lights went out just as I reached the ladder going down to the deck below. I groped my way, and as I hit the deck the emergency lights went on dimly. Another ladder to go. Another hit. Close by, this time. The deck heaved, but I hung on. The emergency lights went out momentarily. Obviously, we were being badly hit.

Finally, I made it down the ladder, slipping and sliding on the rungs following the man in front of me and avoiding the feet of the sailor behind, through the barbette and into the turret. The crew was milling around manning stations and scrambling up inside the turret to the guns above. I climbed up to the shell deck on my way to the hoist room. The officer in charge—the same one who had passed the word—ordered, “Stay below, men. Below the armored deck. These 14-inch guns are no good against planes. I’m going topside to see what’s going on!” He never returned.