On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands was a quiet place as the sun came up. Many of the sailors along Battleship Row were feeling the effects of being on liberty ashore drinking which ended at midnight.
At dawn, there was a sleepy, Sunday feel to the morning, not much was moving other than the sailors who had the morning duty. The rest were sleeping off the festivities from Saturday night. The battleship USS Oklahoma BB-37 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.
The Japanese had planned on giving a declaration of war intentions 30 minutes before the attack began but due to the slowness of their code machines and the typists, the message didn’t get to Washington until the attack was over. The Japanese attack force, led by the first wave swept over Pearl Harbor at 7:48 a.m. and achieved complete surprise. Not only were the battleships parked in a row along Ford Island, but the American fighters on Hickam Field were parked wingtip to wingtip.
As the first wave (183 planes) led by the slow, vulnerable torpedo bombers searched out battleships at anchor, dive-bombers hit Hickam and Wheeler Airfields. The second wave (170 planes) attacked American facilities on Ford Island and Bellows Field.
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 2 torpedos, 20 below the waterline between the smokestack and mainmast. She was hit with a third torpedo at 8:00 a.m. which penetrated the hull. Her boilers punctured, she began to list heavily, then two more torpedos slammed into her 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 the crew 429 would be killed or missing and many others trapped alive under the water.
Stephen Bower Young was one of those trapped below the decks. He was just 19, from Methuen, Massachusetts and had joined the Navy in the summer of 1940, hoping to go 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, which in the space of fewer than five minutes was now inverted, and beneath the water.
Young authored his book and describes their own terrifying experiences in horrendous detail. His battle wasn’t about the carnage that was taking place all around them in Pearl Harbor. But in a very small, confined space, where 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 is clearly felt by the reader.
His easy to read but riveting story reads almost like a work of fiction. The reader can feel the cold water slowly but with incredible realism, inescapably rise, the fuel oil taste which would turn stomachs and the nasty fetid air that would soon envelop the men. The young sailors would try to force wisecracks but others would succumb to despair and then finally the men in total darkness would go quietly as a church in an effort to save air.
The men decided to try another room called the Lucky Bag to see if they could stay dry and breathe long enough 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 #4 radio compartment.
The Japanese attack was over in ninety minutes and immediately Navy personnel and civilian dock workers began the task of trying to rescue men trapped below decks. However, 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 dozed, they were woken to the sound of air hammers in the distance, trying to cut thru the hull to reach trapped sailors. The men began tapping out SOS code to alert the rescuers. Soon the hammering was much closer. Then they’d pause to listen if the trapped sailors were close by.
The men in #4 radio compartment, yelled thru the steel bulkhead that the rescuers were cutting thru to them. Young yelled them to alert them 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”.
Twenty-five hours after the Oklahoma had capsized, Yard worker Joe Bulgo cut through to sailors in the No. 4 radio compartment. “There are some guys trapped in there,” one sailor said, pointing to the wall behind him. “We’ll get ’em out,” said DeCastro.
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, it was releasing air from the Lucky Bag compartment, and water began 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 saying, “Look out for your hands, boys,” he yelled. With a sledgehammer, he pounded in the section of the wall. The sailors scrambled through and were guided up and out by DeCastro’s men. They made it out by 9:00 a.m. and Young recalled the sun was bright and the air smelled fresh. The eleven men in the #4 gun turret had survived.
The sailors on-board the USS Maryland watched it unfold and began cheering as they clambered out of their doomed ship. In all, 32 men would be rescued from the crippled Oklahoma, which would never sail again.
Despite the fact that you obviously know that the author survived the sinking and capsizing of his ship, the account of the author and his shipmates was impossible to put down and very tense. This isn’t a big picture kind of overall look at the disaster at Pearl Harbor but a very narrow view of the author’s quest to survive in a sunken ship. This book was an excellent read and gives the reader the feeling of what it was like to be there in the #4 gun turret as the ship sinks and rolls over and the incredible stress of waiting to be rescued.
Photos: US Navy/author