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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
However, since it was more than three decks down the hatch, all under water, across the main deck and then up to the surface, escape did not seem probable. No one could hold his breath that long, and there might very well be obstructions, too. The hatch was only as big around as a man’s body. But we had nothing to lose and any action was welcome. A man volunteered to try. We took off our skivvy shirts and made a sort of life line to guide him back. “So long,” he said. He disappeared and did not return. Other men tried, but none of them returned. Soon the skivvy-shirt string hung slack. I decided to wait, although I didn’t know why. It was as if someone had told me to wait, because somehow I was not afraid.
Time went by. As the water rose, the air became more and more foul. I felt a longing to break the silence again.
“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.
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.