April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
The world was my oyster that Sunday morning in December, 1941. I was nineteen, breakfast was over, and liberty would be starting in an hour or so. A quick look ont a second-deck porthole of our battleship, the U.S.S. Oklahoma, confirmed my feeling that this was going to be a glorious day. There were still some early morning clouds, but the sun was warm, with just a breath of trade wind ruffling the waters of the harbor. I turned to swab down the deck around me. Someone had spilled coffee there.
I would be happy to get this three-month tour of mess-cooking over with so that I could get back on deck again. Topside had been my cleaning station for the past year, ever since I had come on board ship in Long Beach. I liked being out in the weather, scrubbing and holystoning decks, scraping and painting the bulkheads or gun-turret sides, shining brightwork, splicing line, rigging boat booms, and working at the aviation crane, aft. I had made seaman-first as soon as I was eligible and expected to make cox’n in the spring. But I often wondered whether I should strike for gunner’s mate instead. The 14-inch guns in the division’s massive No. 4 turret aft fascinated me. My battle station was in the upper starboard powder-hoist room where we rolled the heavy powder bags through flameproof doors into the turret chamber to feed the guns.
The Oklahoma was old, but she had a kind of dignity, with her broad beam and tripod masts. The home of a thousand sailors, she had never fired a gun in anger, not even in World War I. Her cruising speed was only ten knots or so, but when she left the Golden Gate behind and began to push her ponderous bulk into the Pacific swells, you could feel her strength. I was proud to be a sailor in her crew.
All non-rated hands had Io take their turn as mess cooks before going up for a rate. It was compulsory, but I had managed to avoid it until I had no choice. Now, only a few more weeks remained of lugging steaming tureens of chow up and down ladders from the midship galley to the living compartment aft where the fourth-deck division messed as well as slept. It always seemed a long way back and forth to our fantail hatch, a trip I made a dozen or so times a meal, not counting runs for seconds. But in a heavy sea, while balancing a tureen of soup in one hand and a platter of baked ham in the other, it seemed even longer. Setting up tables and carrying racks of dirty dishes to the scullery was no fun either, but the six of us who had the duty worked hard and made the best of it. It had been pretty easy this morning, for the boys had been on the town in Honolulu last night and were sleeping late. Everyone was up now, though, and I was anxious to make that first liberty launch ashore. One of my buddies grinned, “Don’t hurry, your girl will wait.”
“We’re going on a picnic,” I told him, as, together, we heaved up the last mess table and secured it.
My girl and I were going to Nanakuli, where the surf was much better than Waikiki and the beach not nearly so crowded. For once I had plenty of money—a ten and a one-dollar bill. Nice going at fifty-four bucks a month with a week of the month already gone.
The compartment rocked with shouts and laughter—with only a muffled undertone of growls from the duty-section men who had to stay ou board and derive most of their day’s amusement from the Sunday funnies.
I looked at my watch. Two minutes to morning colors. I started toward my locker.
Suddenly the bugle blared over the PA system. The sound filled the compartment. The first few notes told me it was not colors or calling away a motor launch. I stopped and listened. It was the call for gun crews to man their antiaircraft stations. The word was passed, “Man the antiaircraft batteries!” Not my station, I thought. And what a crazy time to hold a drill!
“What’s going on?” we asked each other. But no one knew, and we returned to whatever we had been doing.
Again the bugle tore the air. Now it was the call to general quarters! A voice boomed throughout the ship—“All hands, man your battle stations!” What the hell was this? Drills on Sunday? They knew we were all waiting to go ashore.
The harsh, excited voice on the PA system froze us in our tracks. “All hands, man your battle stations! On the double! This is no drill! Get going—they’re real bombs!”
I headed for my turret battle station. Everyone was running and pushing. The ship shuddered as she was hit somewhere forward. I stumbled, but managed to stay on my feet. The lights went out just as I reached the ladder going down to the deck below. I groped my way, and as I hit the deck the emergency lights went on dimly. Another ladder to go. Another hit. Close by, this time. The deck heaved, but I hung on. The emergency lights went out momentarily. Obviously, we were being badly hit.
Finally, I made it down the ladder, slipping and sliding on the rungs following the man in front of me and avoiding the feet of the sailor behind, through the barbette and into the turret. The crew was milling around manning stations and scrambling up inside the turret to the guns above. I climbed up to the shell deck on my way to the hoist room. The officer in charge—the same one who had passed the word—ordered, “Stay below, men. Below the armored deck. These 14-inch guns are no good against planes. I’m going topside to see what’s going on!” He never returned.
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.
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.
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.
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.”