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“God, Please Get Us Out Of This”
A carefree Sunday lay ahead for one of the mess cooks on USS Oklahoma. His pockets jingled, and a pretty girl awaited him for a picnic on a warm, white beach. Minutes later he lay entombed at the bottom of Pearl Harbor
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
On the way back to the powder—handling room I stumbled over a kneeling figure, fumbling at a shoe lace. He looked up and I saw that he was crying. He was a petty officer, a real tough guy, merciless in his treatment of the crew. I moved on.
The powder-handling room was crowded. Indistinctly I could see the faces of my friends, frightened, anxious, and unbelieving. Standing against the bulkhead, I grabbed for support as another hit made the deck beneath us jump. Until now, we supposed they were bombs, and felt almost safe below the armored deck. No one had thought yet of torpedoes tearing away a ship’s side.
Then someone yelled and pointed to a spot where water was pouring in through the lower portside bulkhead. The ship was listing slightly. Horrified, we watched the water rise and felt the deck slipping from under us as the list became more pronounced. Gear of all descriptions commenced to tumble about, and sailors began to scramble for the ladder leading upward. “All our breakfast dishes must be breaking!” I blurted. There was some nervous laughter from the few who knew I was a mess cook. “Don’t laugh,” I said. “They’ll take it out of my pay.”
We tried to get up the ladder to the next deck above. A few men attempted to wriggle up through an emergency escape tube which was only two or three feet wide. But it was useless: they got stuck before they could make it out. I raised my head above the shell-deck level just as the Oklahoma’s enormous shells, weighing a ton apiece, broke loose from their moorings and rolled wildly down the slanting deck where sailors were fighting to stay on their feet. There was no possible escape for these men, and I recoiled from the terrible sights and sounds.
Ducking back down into the handling room, I shouted, “They’re just counterflooding to get us back on an even keel so they can fire the guns.” This information seemed to calm the men for a few moments, but as the list increased, their excitement mounted. Sailors fell down the deck and met their deaths violently. Numbly I watched two friends of mine, arms and legs waving wildly, as they and the gear which had knocked them off their feet smashed into the debris at the bottom of the slanting deck. By the faint light I could see that they had joined others—floating face down in the water.
I clutched at the bulkhead, barely able to stay on my feet as the water flooded in. That was when the dreaded phrase was passed from man to man throughout the ship, “Abandon ship! Abandon ship!”
More shells broke loose. I could see them coming and yelled to a cox’n friend across the tilting deck, who was hanging onto the powder hoist, “Catch me! I’m coming over!” It was terribly clear to me that if he were unable to catch me, or if I were to lose my grip, I would slide helplessly down the deck and be slammed into the farther bulkhead either to drown or be crushed by those shells.
Desperately, I leaped across the space between us. He caught my outstretched arm as I vaulted from the path of the rolling shells. I think I thanked him as I grabbed the powder hoist and hung on. Looking up, I saw the head and shoulders of a sailor hanging upside down from the hatch above. His arms hung limply, swaying slightly. I had known him. VVe had gone through training together in Newport, played baseball there and in the Fleet. I looked away from his inverted eyes.
We could not get out. We were being hit again and again, dreadful, tearing hits. We realized all at once that these were not bombs, but torpedoes. And the ship was wide open, no watertight integrity at all. Every compartment, every void space, was open to the sea once the hull was torn apart. It had never happened that way before that I could remember, but there was an inspection scheduled for the next day and all spaces had been ordered opened.
The list rapidly increased until it seemed that the ship was almost lying on her side. With awful certainty we knew that we were sinking. Suddenly the ship lurched! The deck slipped out from under me and my hands snatched at empty air. As she rolled over. I was pitched into a mass of dead and dying and, with them, buffeted and tossed about. Then the dark waters closed over me as the ship came to rest upside down on the bottom of the harbor.
Eventually I surfaced, gulped for air, and swam desperately in the darkness, surprised to find myself alive. Random shouts mingled with cries for help; then quiet fell abruptly. Water gurgled as it made its way into the ship. I thought we were done for.
Suddenly, a voice I recognized cried, “Help! I can’t swim!”
Someone switched on a battle lantern. It still worked, thank heaven. The light shone eerily in the darkness. The handling room was a shambles. Loose gear and dead bodies were floating everywhere.
I swam to the man who had called and grabbed him by the hair to hold him above water. An opening was spotted leading to a passageway, and we all swam for the hatch with my friend safely in tow. We gained the passageway and found it was only partly full of water. A hasty head count showed thirty of us huddled there.