Today is December 7 and we remember that fateful day 79 years ago.
Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands was a quiet place as the sun rose on that beautiful Sunday morning of 1941. The base was peaceful, but that peace was about to be shattered.
Among the thousands of American sailors stationed at Pearl Harbor on that Sunday morning, many of them would never live to see another sunrise. Among the many ships on Battleship Row was the battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37). The crew had been preparing for an inspection, which was to take place on the morning of Monday, December 8. As a result, many doors and hatches were wide open on that fateful day.
Little did the crew know that as dawn broke, a Japanese air armada was hurtling toward them. The Japanese had planned on giving their declaration of war 30 minutes before the attack began. But due to the slowness of their code machines and typists, the message didn’t get to Washington until the attack was over. The first wave of the Japanese attack force swept over Pearl Harbor at 7:48 a.m. and achieved complete surprise. Not only had the battleships been parked in a row at anchor along Ford Island, but the American fighters on Hickam Field had been parked wingtip to wingtip.
The first wave of 183 planes was led by the slow and vulnerable torpedo bombers. Since they were not under fire, they searched out battleship targets as in an exercise. Meanwhile, dive bombers hit Hickam and Wheeler Airfields. The second wave, consisting of 170 planes, attacked American facilities on Ford Island and Bellows Field.
The USS Oklahoma was berthed at Fox 5 on Battleship Row next to the USS Maryland. The officers of the watch called the crew to battle stations having witnessed the attacks beginning elsewhere in the harbor. Ensign Herb Rommel, the 4th Division officer, called the crew to General Quarters. Rommel saw the cruiser Helena get slammed with a torpedo and jumped onto the General Announcing System.
“This is no shit, God damn it! They’re real bombs, Now get Going!” As another officer fumbled with the keys to the ammunition lockers, the call went out that would live forever: “Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”
At 7:56 a.m. the Oklahoma was hit simultaneously with two torpedoes 20 feet below the waterline between its smokestack and mainmast. Four minutes later, she was hit with a third torpedo which penetrated the hull. Her boilers punctured and she began to list heavily. At that moment, she was slammed with two more torpedoes and she began to capsize.
In less than 11 minutes the USS Oklahoma would roll over and sink. But her masts touched bottom in the harbor and her hull was still above water. Of her crew, 429 would be killed or missing. Many others would be trapped alive underwater.
One of those sailors trapped below decks was Stephen Bower Young, 19, from Methuen, Massachusetts. Young had joined the Navy in the summer of 1940, hoping to get an appointment to the Naval Academy.
When the attack began, he was ordered, as per SOP, to go to his battle station below deck. Young and 10 of his shipmates were at their station inside the No. 4 gun turret. In less than five minutes, their station was inverted and underwater.
Young authored the riveting book, Trapped at Pearl Harbor: Escape from Battleship Oklahoma which describes the men’s terrifying experiences in horrendous detail. It has always been a yearly ritual of mine to read the book on the night of December 6-7.
Young’s battle wasn’t about the carnage that was taking place all around them. Trapped in a very small, confined space, he was virtually unaware of anything else other than the Japanese had sunk his ship. The realism and horror at the feeling of his ship being capsized are clearly felt as one turns the pages.
You can almost feel the cold water slowly but inescapably rise; the fuel oil taste which would turn stomachs; and the nasty fetid air that would soon envelop the men. Young’s descriptive realism is incredible.
The young sailors would try to force wisecracks. Others would succumb to despair. Finally, the men, in total darkness, would go quiet, as if in a church service, in an effort to preserve air.
The men decided to try another room called the Lucky Bag to see if they could stay dry and breathe long enough there to be rescued. The room had only one entrance and exit but it was at least dry. The room on the opposite side of the wall held sailors still alive in the No. 4 radio compartment.
The Japanese attack was over in 90 minutes and Navy personnel and civilian dock workers immediately jumped into action, beginning the task of trying to rescue the men trapped below decks. However, because of the chaos and destruction all around them, they weren’t able to mount any serious rescue attempt on December 7. It wasn’t until around 1:00 a.m on December 8, that the rescue crews would be able to get enough air compressors, pumps, chipping tools, and torches alongside the hull to begin their work in earnest.
As the men trapped inside the ship nodded in and out of restless sleep, they were woken to the sound of air hammers in the distance trying to cut through the hull to reach them. The men began tapping out SOS code to alert the rescuers. Soon the hammering could be heard much closer. The hammerers would periodically pause to listen if the trapped sailors were close by.
The men in the No. 4 radio compartment yelled through the steel bulkhead that the rescuers were cutting to free them. Young yelled to his shipmates to alert the rescuers that they were just on the other side of the wall. “Okay!, don’t worry. If they can get to us, we’ll tell ’em,” they replied.
Twenty-five hours after the Oklahoma had capsized, Yard worker Joe Bulgo cut through to the sailors in the No. 4 radio compartment. “There are some guys trapped in there,” one sailor said, pointing to the wall behind him and into Young’s room. “We’ll get ’em out,” said Julio DeCastro who was instrumental in organizing the rescue. De Castro hadn’t even waited for rescue boats. He and some of his fellow workers had swum out to see if anyone was still alive in the capsized ship.
Young yelled to the rescue team on the other side. DeCastro’s calm voice came back, promising he would get them out. But as they began cutting through the bulkhead, air from the Lucky Bag compartment began to release and water started rising. There was momentary panic but as DeCastro’s men began their work, the men inside tried in vain to seal the hatch to the Lucky Bag.
It was the longest 60 minutes of Young’s life. The water level had reached their knees but finally, they had three cuts in the bulkhead. And the sweetest words Young had ever heard were Bulgo yelling, “Look out for your hands, boys.” With a sledgehammer, he pounded the wall creating an opening. The sailors scrambled through the opening and were guided up and out by DeCastro’s men. They made it out by 9:00 a.m. Young recalled that the sun was bright and the air smelled fresh. The 11 men in the No. 4 gun turret had survived.
The sailors onboard the USS Maryland next to the Oklahoma watched the event unfold and began cheering as the men clambered out of their doomed ship. In all, 32 men would be rescued from the crippled USS Oklahoma. The ship would never sail again.
Today we remember the 2,403 Americans, including 68 civilians, who lost their lives that morning, as well as the 19 American ships, sunk or damaged. We should pause to also remember the heroes on that fateful day. Men like Julio De Castro and Stephen Young.