“God, Please Get Us Out Of This”


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!”

They began to cut through the metal. I watched, fascinated, tortured by the slow progress as the cut was made horizontal to the deck. We could see the blade push the cut along. Someone yelled, “Burn us out!” They replied, “No, you’d suffocate. Hold on! Hold on just a little longer!”

The water had risen to our knees. “Hurry! Hurry up!” we shouted as the downward cut began. I turned to look at the hatch. It was bulging inward at the center. Even that heavy metal could not withstand so great a water pressure. Would we all drown like rats at the last minute, just when rescue was at hand? It was going to be close, so close! “

Please hurry, for God’s sake! We can’t stop this flooding!” The cutting tool began its progress down the third side of the square. We watched, hypnotized. It was maddeningly slow. The water was now waist high. Would the hatch hold? “

We’re going to bend it out,” a voice spoke through the bulkhead. So close, yet a world away, separated from us by a quarter of an inch of steel, or less. It was the difference between life and death. Fingers pulled at the three-sided metal cut. I pushed at it. It was bending. There was no time to complete the cutting job. Gradually the opening widened as the water pushed at us from behind. It would be just wide enough to scrape through.

“Okay! Come on through!” voices called. We entered the opening in a flood of water. Friendly hands reached for our oil-slicked bodies and pulled us into the next compartment. We were free! Gratefully I searched the faces of our rescuers—big Hawaiian Navy Yard workers and some sailors. The Navy indeed took care of its own.

“Here, up on my shoulders, boy,” said one of the men in the accent of the Islands. He smiled and I smiled back. “Thanks a lot,” was all I could say. They boosted me from man to man and from space to space up through the bottom of the ship. Finally I emerged from out of the cold darkness into the warm sunshine of a new day. It was 0900, 8 December.

Standing on the upturned hull, I gazed about me. It was the same world I had left twenty-five hours before, but as I looked at the smoke and wreckage of battle, the sunken ships Tennessee, West Virginia, and Arizona astern of us, I felt that life would never be the same, not for me—not for any of us. I took a few drags on a cigarette. Someone said to put it out because of all the oil around.

A launch came alongside to take us to a hospital ship. As I stepped into the boat, I looked down at the ship we had lived in, the ship we had come so close to dying in, the tomb of friends and shipmates who were gone forever. The mighty Oklahoma was no more. The flag, the colored signal pennants would never fly again. Her guns were silent, her turrets full of men and water. How strange that never in all her life had she ever fired at an enemy.

The launch chugged along out into the harbor. Turning to the sailor who had bet a dollar with me on how we would die, I grinned at him. “Put the buck away for a souvenir, Willy. We both lost.”