“god, Please Get Us Out Of This”

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“Willy,” I said, “I’ll bet you a dollar we’ll suffocate before we drown.” “Okay, you’re on,” agreed Willy. “I say we drown first.” We each produced a soggy dollar bill, after which we lapsed again into silence.

Once we heard firing way above us; it sounded strange coming down through the water in the darkness and the silence. I tried to imagine what was going on up there. It must be night, because more than half a day had passed. The Japs had really caught us napping, but that was the extent of our knowledge. We had seen nothing before the Oklahoma went down. Had the other ships also been sunk? Were the Japanese landing troops? Not knowing was terrible.

My thoughts were kaleidoscopic-school, family, my Navy life. I thought of pretty girls, laughing, full of life. I felt terribly alone, and blurted, “Damn it, I’m not even twenty and I’ll never know or love a girl again!” At that moment this loss seemed stronger than any other. No one said anything, presumably out of silent agreement.

“It’s getting worse,” a voice said out of the dark, “we’ll have to move. The Lucky Bag compartment [the ship’s lost-and-found locker] is right next to us. Let’s try to get in there if it isn’t flooded.”

This compartment went nowhere, but at least it would be more comfortable, with stacks of mattresses and peacoats to lie on. We turned on the flashlight and tested for air through a hole in the compartment bulkhead. There was no evidence of water so we opened the hatch and moved in. I kicked off my shoes and stretched out on a pile of clothing, lying there in what remained of the uniform of the day—oilstained shorts. The dollar bill was safely tucked away in my watch pocket. I lay next to the bulkhead, along the slant of the deck, feet toward the water in the lower part of the compartment. It was rising slowly.

Sudden shouts through the bulkhead told us there was another group like ours in the adjoining space. We talked to them, briefly. Their situation was similar to ours; they, too, were trapped.

Water lapped over the hatch opening into the passageway. By now, we were only vaguely aware of time as we fell again into silence. Each of us was alone with himself in our living tomb.

Suddenly, anger rumbled within me. Why couldn’t we have died in the sun where we could have met death head on? That was the way to die, on your feet, like a man. But instead, it was to be a slow, useless death, imprisoned in our dark iron cell.

Still, perhaps to die like this required a special kind of courage. Could I meet the test? “Oh, God,” I prayed, “relieve us of our torment. If it is Your will that we die here, please watch over our families and comfort them. We are delivered unto You and ask to be forgiven for our sins.”

The hours passed …

Unexpectedly, and from a great distance, came the sound of hammering. Metal against metal! Our hearts jumped. The sound stopped, and we held our breaths. It started again, closer, and died away once more.

“What is it?” someone asked. “Is it possible they can reach us?”

“No. I don’t know,” another said.

“Quiet. Listen.”

We looked around, not seeing anything in the dark, of course, but looking anyway. Ears strained for the sound to begin once more. It seemed an eternity. Was help on the way? Then the noise began again, not sporadically, but like the knock of an automatic tool. Did it mean rescuers? Why was the sound fainter now? It stopped again. Were they unable to find a route to us through the sunken ship? I dared not hope, but my heart pounded.

We hammered at the steel bulkhead with a dog wrench. Three dots—three dashes—three dots—SOS!!

We must let them know we’re here. It had to be a pneumatic air hammer! It had to be! Or were the spaces over us and under us so flooded that we were sealed away? There it was again. Louder! Much louder now. Then, suddenly, silence.

“They’re trying to get us,” someone said. We rapped out the SOS again. Ten of us are still alive in here. We’ve been here a day—a whole twenty-four hours in this awful place. We were thirty, but now we’re ten. The others are gone.

We yelled to the men in the next compartment. The noise had been coming from that direction. Their excited replies told us they, too, thought rescue was on the way. Now the rapping started again, closer, stopped, started once more. We waited in an agony of suspense.

Abruptly, the silence of our compartment was broken as a yell sounded from the next compartment. Workers had broken through to them! They shouted to the rescue party that there were others trapped—us! We knocked frantically against the bulkhead! A voice was heard shouting above the clamor, “Can you stand a hole? We’ll drill a small one through.”

“Yes, yes, go ahead and drill!” A sailor flashed on the battle lantern. A hole appeared halfway up the bulkhead as the drill bit through the metal and then retreated. There was a loud hissing as the air pressure within and—without equalized. The water began to pour in as the air rushed out! We had never thought of this. We could see the water flooding in through the hatch. Men jumped swiftly across the deck to close the hatch and dog it down. They secured it top and bottom, but water sprayed through the sides.

“Keep calm, fellows,” a worker called. “We’ll get you out!”