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Soldiers usually win the battles and generals get the credit for them.
-- Napoleon Bonaparte
The morning of December 7, 1941 was typical of any Sunday morning aboard the battleship USS CALIFORNIA. My billet for meals was the Marines' casemate #8(an armored enclosure for a gun) located port side midship, just where the forecastle breaks and a ladder leads down to the quarter-deck.
Breakfast over, I took the dirty dishes to the scullery below. Lamentably, that's the way peace ended. Just then a sailor ran by crazily singing, "The Japs are coming--hurrah, hurrah!" I don't remember the alarm that sounded General Quarters. I only know that suddenly I joined in a rush to battle stations.
When hurrying to our battle stations, to reach the decks below, we were trained to leap into the hatch --instead of using it's ladder --(ladder is ship talk and most often refers to a steep iron stairway). Then, grab onto a bar attached to the overhead (ceiling) of the deck below and swing ones body into a run in the lower passageway. That's roughly the way I arrived at my battle station in the "lower powder handling room" where a first-class petty-officer, named Allen, was in charge.
Allen was one of those old-time petty officers referred to as "The backbone of the Fleet." Now, he was busily giving orders we couldn't carry out because no one had the keys to the powder magazines(room).
Suddenly, a violent lurching shook us all, tossing us around like so many unmuscled puppets as the ship seemed to rise up a foot, then settle back. Allan grabbed at his ear phones. "We're hit." he cried. "A torpedo!"
"So what!" I thought foolishly. "Enjoy it!" The armor plating around the USS CALIFORNIA was at least a foot thick.
My idiot elation was brief. A torpedo had hit us. (Three in all hit below the armor plating and made huge holes.) The fuel tank next to our port magazine ignited in flames and there we were, surrounded on three sides by powder-filled magazines.
Immediately orders came to check the temperature of the bulkhead (wall) separating the magazine from the fuel tank. We forced the lock on the magazine door and opened it. With that accomplished we discovered the covers had shaken off some of the cans containing the 14-inch powder bags and the aisle was strewn with ripped open bags of gunpowder.
Anxiously, I entered, walking carefully over the debris to feel the bulkhead. I returned and reported to Allen that the bulkhead was cool. Allen in turn passed the reassuring word over the mouthpiece of his headset to the bridge.
Whatever reply came back over the phones was reflected in the strain on Allen's face. He couldn't seem to comprehend, perhaps he didn't want to believe. He turned to us and almost in a whisper said, "The OKLAHOMA! It has capsized!" Frighteningly, our ship was beginning to list dangerously.
We had no time to grasp fully this impossible situation, for a report next came over Allen's headset of a fire in the upper handling room. Our access to this space was a vertical ladder leading up the side of the column, which also contained the powder bag hoist, and which was centered, where we stood, in the lower handling room. The column was the pivot point for the entire gun turret complex above. The turret complex turned from port broadside to starboard broadside, in the direction desired to fire the guns.
I volunteered to carry a fire-extinguisher up the ladder but found it difficult hauling that heavy container with one hand while climbing vertically, with the other. When I reached the upper handling room, I found no fire, nor any people. In fact, there was no reason to stay, but on the way back down this crazy thought struck me:
"No one will believe all this when I tell them someday. And since I have no memory for dates, it will really sound silly." So I sat down, and with my pocket knife, scratched on the back of my wristwatch: Pearl Harbor Dec.7, 1941.
Back in the lower handling room the smell of danger was in the stifling air. The ship listed heavily to port. The people in the engine room reported that they were working feverishly to correct it, and with a sense of relief we soon felt the ship begin to check the deadly roll and slowly inch back toward a safer situation.
But the danger was far from over, for Allen received a report that our anti-aircraft ammunition supply line broke down from an explosion. The break was reported to be in "CL" compartment -- my sleeping quarters -- and when the call came, I said I'd go. Two other seamen also volunteered for the job.
As I was about to start, however, the lights in our handling room flickered and went out. For a few minutes we were in total darkness. Then red battle lamps came on, dimly, but giving enough light so I could make my way about.
Before leaving the handling room, I went over to shake hands with my friend Edwin "Ed" Halcrow. Although Halcrow and I had been together for six-months and kidded each other a lot, when we shook hands, he started to cry. I didn't know what to do and in my embarrassment made it worse, saying, "If I don't see you again, Halcrow, be good." Halcrow burst out in tears afresh as I turned and quickly climbed a vertical ladder to a passageway above that led forward on the starboard side to "CL" compartment. We never saw each other again.
The passageway was narrow with several watertight bulkhead doors to open, pass through, and close behind us. A conveyor belt system ran along the inboard side of the passageway, so when ammunition (shells) arrived by elevator/hoist from the magazine below, into "CL" compartment, the men there would divide it and manually carry it to either of the two conveyors, port or starboard. From there it ran on the conveyors to other hoists which took the shells to the 5-inch guns on the boat-deck.
Because of the dim lighting we made our way slowly and reached "CL" compartment without trouble. But here a shock awaited us. As each of my companions looked into the "CL" compartment, he turned and backed off. Then came my turn and what I saw was pure horror, my first realization that the game was now for keeps. I saw bodies---many bodies---some of which I knew, just by their eyes, were lifeless. We stopped to reconnoiter.
While we stood at the door of "CL" compartment, loud booms from above vibrated the ship and shook our senses. Each of us thought they were Japanese bombs exploding above us and that the armor deck was protecting us. However, they must have been gun-fire of the 5-inch gun on the boat deck. But, where did they get the ammunition? We were sent here because of a breakdown in the ammunition supply line. "They must be using ammunition from the supply in the "ready-boxes" next to the guns," I said.
As I stood there looking into "CL" compartment, my companion, a seaman named "Smitty", called to me. I turned to see him on the opposite side of the conveyor trying to help a shipmate whose back was against the bulkhead, but who was slowly slipping to the deck (floor). His eyes were rolled back into his head. He looked like he was dying.
"This one is still alive," Smitty said calmly. Smitty was a small fellow but he managed to wrestle the wounded shipmate to me and I pulled his limp body over the conveyor into the passageway. If on December 6th anyone had asked me to help save the life of this offensive guy, I would have answered, "To hell with him." I had known this fellow since boot-camp, and he was one of the most overbearing individuals I had ever met. But now, unconscious, he had no personality; his was a life to be saved.
To reach the first-aid station, Smitty and I back-tracked aft on the starboard side. Now and then, we had to stop and lay him down, so we could rest. Catching our breaths, we moved on again. As we trudged along, we had to again open and close the watertight bulkhead doors while making our way back through the passageway to a ladder up, which was near the man-hole down to number three lower handling, from where we started. The hatch-cover at the top of the ladder was dogged down---another Navy term for closed and watertight. But, it was the nearest escape to the decks above. We undogged the hatch and pushed it open. Smitty took the injured man's legs and started up the ladder; I got him under the arms again and just as I'd taken a second or third step up the ladder an explosion again rocked the ship.
The blast of air compressed by the explosion thrust the three of us back down the ladder, landing us in a pile at the bottom. Picking myself up I found my right leg had a laceration. Blood was oozing from my shin. It stung. However, I soon dismissed it; there was too much to contend with at this time to be concerned about it. We knew we were in a life-threatening situation.
The explosion frightened us. We realized that we must make a decision. We immediately closed the hatch-cover and debated what to do, which way to go.
Suddenly, a steam pipe nearby blew out. In a stunning moment of chaos that followed, I heard the cry,"Gas!" Unquestioningly, I held my breath until I could fit my gas-mask to my face. The gas mask was very uncomfortable and it was difficult to cope with. Finally, I lifted it a bit to sniff the air to determine whether or not it smelled safe to breathe; it did. Then I looked up in alarm.
Incredibly, three Negro men we had thought dead, staggered toward us from the direction of that gruesome morgue, the "CL" compartment, we had just left. Two of these men were helping a third one who kept repeating insanely, "Moses is dead. Moses is dead." (Moses Anderson Allen, STM1.) Moses was a large man, an Officers' Mess Attendant. He was liked by everyone on board, and the Negro crewmen looked up to him as a leader.
Smitty and I debated whether to try to escape by going back to "CL" compartment and try a ladder there, or opening this hatch again and trying to escape here. Hesitatingly, we again tackled this ladder. We again opened the hatch cover and saw no evidence of damage from the explosion.
What actually happened was a bomb penetrated the decks above and exploded in front of the ship's store, several feet forward of the ladder. It killed "Boots," one of the masters-at-arms(ship's policeman). It bent a heavy steel hatch-combing flush with the deck.
We picked up our injured shipmate and carried him up. This time, we were lucky and got him to the first-aid station.
Some station! It was normally the crews' recreation room, but now a state of incredible confusion prevailed. We laid our shipmate on the deck. A chief petty officer, whom I recognized as one of the "black-gang" (engine room crew), came over and with great authority asked if he was alive. "We think so," I said. "Then get him out of the way," ordered the chief. "Slide him under the table where nobody will trip over him." (Later in the week, I learned that the fellow's back had been broken, but he would recover.) Then the chief went back to directing and sorting the living from the dead. As men brought in casualties, the chief would say, "Dead or alive? If they're dead, take them into the other room and throw them on the dead pile." He repeatedly made rounds of the room inspecting bodies. "This man is dead---Get him out of here." Normally this cold, hard manner would have been resented. Now, I could only feel admiration for his efficiency.
As I stood, trying to comprehend all of this, someone handed me a bottle of root-beer and a sandwich. Ordinarily I would have retch at the sight of so much blood, but I ate and drank, completely amazed at my appetite under such conditions and decided it was all incomprehensible.
As I ate, one of the ship's seaplane pilots hurried into the room, presumably to pass right on through and on out an opposite door. Instead, he slipped on the bloody deck and fell across the wounded bodies. I watched, and feeling nothing, wondered: Does nature have the power to anesthetize? Or, am I in shock?
Then Father Maguire, Catholic Chaplain for the Fleet, strode through the doorway. In the past weeks, this priest had succeeded in getting permission for my brother's transfer from the USS DETROIT CL-8, a light, four-stack cruiser, to the CALIFORNIA so we could be together. Bob's transfer, Father Maguire had told me, was due to occur around the 14th of December.
Though dirty, and looking tired, Father Maguire walked with dignity. A gas mask that looked like a strangely shaped hat was propped on his head. He passed on through toward the bomb-blasted ship's store. Perhaps he hoped to find someone to whom he could administer last rites.
While I was in the first-aid station, word came to abandon ship. Whether or not this was an official order, I don't know. But instead, the Chief Petty Officer in charge, and a Warrant Officer, named Applegate, formed a work-party of ten men to search for anti-aircraft ammunition, since ours could not be reached, due to a bomb explosion.
Our work-party first went aft to the door which exited onto the starboard quarter-deck. We were about to proceed across the quarter-deck to board a motor launch when someone warned us that a wave of strafing Japanese planes was passing over. The planes came in low, firing their machine guns. Between sorties, men from nearby battle stations raced out on the quarterdeck and dragged to shelter those who had been struck by the machine gun fire. Then, as soon as we felt it was safe, we ran for the motor launch, which was waiting for us at the port quarter.
Normally, we used a ladder to step down to the boat, but now the ship was so low in the water, it seemed strange that we could jump from the quarter-deck, right into the boat. Swiftly we piled into the motor launch and headed in the direction of the battleship, USS MARYLAND.
The MARYLAND was next astern of the CALIFORNIA, in Battleship Row,(the USS NEOSHO was moored at a fuel dock, between the two battleships), and it was moored inboard of the OKLAHOMA, which earlier in the attack, after taking nine torpedoes, had rolled over. I'm sure the coxswain of our launch chose the MARYLAND because she seemed unscathed. Certainly she must have the ammunition that we so desperately needed.
En route, we could see the strange angle at which the USS NEVADA stood near the dry-docks. She seemed to be out of the channel, perhaps she had turned to avoid a bomb.
Our coxswain took our launch into the space between the capsized OKLAHOMA and the port side forecastle of the MARYLAND. Shouting up to sailors on the MARYLAND's forecastle, we tried to convey to them that we needed ammunition, but we could rouse no support. Their problems were far greater to them than what we were shouting up to them from our motor launch. Had we approached the officer's accommodation ladder at the MARYLAND's starboard quarter-deck, and spoken to an officer there, we might have been more successful.
Once it became clear that we could expect no help from this quarter, we gave up trying to board the MARYLAND. The coxswain maneuvered the motor launch from between the two battleships and motored around the whale shaped hull of the capsized OKLAHOMA and went to the USS WEST VIRGINIA.
Carefully, the coxswain nudged the motor launch's bow against the WEST VIRGINIA's forecastle, just forward of number-one turret. By keeping a little power on, he maintained the position without actually tying up to the battleship.
By this time, the WEST VIRGINIA had sunk deep enough so that it was with little effort that Warrant Officer Applegate, and the five men he picked, to clamber aboard. I watched as they crossed the ship's forecastle, walking under the barrels of the 16-inch guns, and walk aft on the starboard side. We never saw them again.
Within minutes the forecastle shot up in smoke and flames. (It may have been the bomb that hit the turret of the TENNESSEE.) An officer in his white uniform appeared engulfed in the fire. Someone on board shouted, "Get out of there. The ship can blow up any minute."
The explosion frightened us terribly. The coxswain began backing the launch away from the burning battleship, Suddenly, I saw that the coxswain was not aware of the danger immediately behind our launch; we were backing straight for one of the large propellers of the capsized OKLAHOMA sticking high out of the water.
I yelled at the coxswain, "Reverse your engines." At the same time, two of us clambered to the tiller-deck, and scrambled over the taffrail. With one hand grasping the taffrail, we reached with our legs -- spread eagle like -- and with our feet, shoved against the propeller. Unquestionably, our effort prevented the motor launch from being damaged; but we just did what the situation required.
The coxswain now had the launch underway forward. Then we saw a man struggling in the water near the midships section of the WEST VIRGINIA. (A picture of this rescue was snapped -- probably by the USS ST LOUIS -- and it is part of the pictorial record of the Japanese attack)
"We're going in after him," he told us. Another sailor standing beside him objected. I too, murmured disapproval. I felt that since the WEST VIRGINIA was expected to blow up as the ARIZONA did, it wasn't reasonable to risk the lives of the eight of us in our boat in an effort to save one?
Our coxswain was firm; he ordered both of us off the tiller-deck. I said no more, and stayed right where I was. Actually, I was becoming so frightened I don't think I could have moved. The coxswain maneuvered in to pick the man from the water, bringing us dangerously close to the perimeter of the burning oil that was closing in.
By now I was overwhelmed by all that was happening around us and for the life of me, I can't recall whether that man made it into the boat. We headed for 1010 dock at the Navy shipyard.
And there was, indeed, reason to feel overwhelmed. On every side were almost unbearable sights. Battleship Row was devastated. From the direction of the dry docks, an explosion shook the harbor. This was the destroyer SHAW. Just two weeks before, I had visited my brother's ship in that same dry dock.
As we headed for the center of the channel, we saw that the cruiser
ST LOUIS was underway, switching from stern-way to headway, after backing out from the Navy yard, and intending to make a run for the open sea.
The ST LOUIS was gaining speed, but we were able to come alongside her starboard quarter(there's another historical picture which shows our motor launch underway alongside the ST. LOUIS), where we tried to clamber aboard the gangway which was still hanging over the side. An officer on deck denied us permission to come aboard. Frustrated, we abandoned the attempt to board the
ST LOUIS and headed for 1010 dock at the Naval Ship Yard, where everyone went their individual ways.
Note: by John H. McGoran
This Day in History
Confederate General Joseph Johnston officially surrenders his army to General William T. Sherman at Durham Station, North Carolina.
John Wilkes Booth is killed when Union soldiers track him down to a Virginia farm 12 days after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.
Joseph E. Johnston surrenders the Army of Tennessee to Sherman.
The ancient Basque town of Guernica in northern Spain is bombed by German planes.
Armistice negotiations are resumed.
The U.S. command in Saigon announces that the U.S. force level in Vietnam is 281,400 men, the lowest since July 1966.
President Nixon, despite the ongoing communist offensive, announces that another 20,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Vietnam in May and June, reducing authorized troop strength to 49,000.