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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
I volunteered to take a look around and jumped along a half-submerged ladder to take the lantern. “It’s a good thing this has waterproof batteries,” I observed. “Everybody knows how dependable they are.” We smiled a little, remembering magazine advertisements and illustrations of people in tough spots who were saved by their trusty flashlights. “Don’t go away,” I added, “I’ll be back.” No one said anything except that they knew there was no way out.
Taking a deep breath, I ducked under water, reached another compartment, and surfaced. Flashing the light around. I saw that I was in a flooded living compartment. It was difficult to orient myself. There should be a porthole or escape hatch here, but I could see nothing except floating mattresses and bodies. When I finally found a porthole, there was a body stuck in it, a plump body. I grabbed the feet and yanked, but couldn’t budge him. The irony of it! Slim as I was, I could have made it through. Everything else was blocked and jammed. I found my way back to the passageway and broke the bad news to the men.
Other areas were investigated, but we found no way out. We were in a pocket of air that had been trapped as the ship went down. Although our space was only partially flooded, we knew it was simply a matter of time until the air gave out and the water took over. It was rising slowly. We settled back to wait. Rescue seemed neither probable nor possible. I was sure that if the Navy could rescue us, it would. Rut by now, for all we knew, the Japs might have taken over Pearl Harbor anyway. The situation seemed hopeless.
“No talking,” ordered a voice out of the dark. “We’ve got to save the air.”
“For what?” another asked. No answer.
We had turned off the light to conserve the batteries. The voice was right: unnecessary talking would use up the air, so we remained silent in the darkness. The men settled back with their thoughts. I lay curled up on a piece of metal overhang. Others sat on the half-submerged ladder or against the upper bulkhead. Although we were upside down, the ship was not quite perpendicular to the bottom. There was an angle of thirty degrees or so. We were fortunate in that respect: we could keep out of the water somewhat.
Only a short time had passed since the bugle had called us to action, and my watch was still ticking. The ship must have gone down in fifteen minutes. It happened too quickly for us to have known much fear, too quickly for us to get out. On the other hand, it had seemed like a lifetime.
Time crawled. The water rose slowly as the air was used, steadily pushing its way into the broken ship. The bodies of our shipmates bobbed against the handling-room entrance to the passageway. It seemed as if they wanted to join the living there. We moved them behind some wreckage. There was nothing we could do for them, nor they for us. Sooner or later we would join our dead comrades. Perhaps others were joining me in my silent prayer, “God, please get us out of this.”
The taste and smell of fuel oil was sickening. Occasionally a man would move off, determined to seek some way of escape. None returned, however. But each man’s life was all he had, and he was entitled to try to save it as best he could.
There were less than twenty of us left, but, incredibly, there was no panic. The hours passed by. The water level rose inexorably, inch by awful inch. I thought of home. Days of growing up. People I had known. Long summer days of hard farm work, but with lots of time for fun. Swimming, fishing. Pleasant thoughts. Even now, in the darkness, the memories brought a smile. My family. They were a source of strength to me.
It had been more than a year since I had seen them. They had all waved goodbye as I walked out of the yard that morning. How would they take the news of my death? With sadness, certainly, but with a reserved pride. I hoped they would be all right.
My watch stopped finally. Time did not matter. I dropped it in the water with a splash. Then I took out a pocketful of change and dropped the coins absently into the water. There was a place in town where Oklahoma sailors met to drink beer, sing songs of the Navy, tell sea stories, dance with their girls, laugh, and fight with sailors from other ships. Remembering it, I couldn’t resist saying aloud, “How about a cold beer? I’m thirsty.”
“Set ‘em up, all the way around,” a sailor replied.
“Join the Navy and see the world—WorldWorldfrom the bottom of Pearl Harbor.”
No one seemed to mind the wisecracks. It was crazy, maybe, but everyone seemed to relax a bit.
The hours moved on. It was probably dark above us now, and it seemed darker here, somehow.
Breaking another long silence, one of the men recalled that there was an escape hatch here. “It’s narrow and goes straight down, thirty feet or so to the main deck. Let’s give it a try.” I had to orient myself because “up” was now “down,” and we were actually sitting on the overhead. I hadn’t even known there was such a hatch right here. We turned on the light.