Wednesday, December 07, 2011

It's been 70 years...Pearl Harbor.

It was 70 years ago today that the Japanese snuck up and attacked our military forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii without a declaration of war or any provocation on our part. 1,177 US servicemen were killed on that Sunday morning, a date which will continue to live in infamy.

Lest you forget, here are the stories of four of the survivors.

The survivors of those doomed ships -- many from the Bay Area -- are mostly hard of hearing now, but the buzz and the boom of the bombs from that day still ring in the ears of John Tait of Concord, Ed Silveira of Hayward and Dempson Arellano of Antioch. Gordon Van Hauser, who lived in San Carlos until his death in 2008, often spoke of his service not in terms of fighting for his own life, but for the life of his country.

Aboard the USS Arizona
Today the ghost ship USS Arizona sits at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the 1,102 sailors who perished seven decades ago entombed there for all time. On the evening of Dec. 6, 1941, a young Marine, Gordon Van Hauser took a liberty boat from his barracks to the Arizona, to have dinner with two friends from boot camp.

After chow Van Hauser and his buddies joined other sailors on the ship's fantail to watch a movie, which Van Hauser disliked so much he took a boat back to the base that night.

A lazy Sunday morning
Van Hauser was about to go on duty the next day, Dec. 7, when low-flying Japanese torpedo bombers -- headed for Battleship Row and the Arizona -- appeared out of a clear Hawaiian sky, rattling the Marines' rooftops and strafing the parade ground. "I took my rifle, which was a 1903 model Springfield, and we were firing .30-caliber ammunition...as the Japanese torpedo bombers came in," Van Hauser said in a video his son recorded before his death. Firing single-shot, bolt-action rifles scarcely better than muskets, he and about 800 other Marines brought down two or three Japanese zeroes, Van Hauser recalled, and watched them burst into flames.

Aboard the USS West Virginia
Dempson Arellano had just suggested to his friend Gleason that they visit their girlfriends in Honolulu, when somebody burst through the door and shouted, "The Japanese hit!" Arellano had the jumper he wore on liberty pulled halfway over his head when he felt the battleship shake violently. "I finally got my head out of the blouse and said, 'What the hell was that?'"

Just then, a second torpedo struck the ship, peeling open a hole in the hull. As brown water came rushing down the passageway, Arellano said, "Gleason, let's get the hell out of here." When they reached the deck, a Japanese plane was spraying the deck with machine gun fire. "We had just brought potatoes aboard and there was a stack about 8 or 10 feet tall," says Arellano, who now lives at the Antioch Care Home, "so we ducked behind that and the Japanese plane strafed all those potatoes."

Aboard the USS San Francisco
For three months, Ed Silveira did nothing but peel potatoes. "On Dec. 7, I was mess cooking on the second deck. On Saturdays and Sundays, you rack out, you don't do nothing. At about five minutes to 8, I'm looking up and seeing all these airplanes. I thought they were our people practicing. They were just peppering the bay. And I was thinking, 'Gee, what a good mock battle this is!' About that time, I saw a plane hit the West Virginia with a torpedo bomb, and I realize this ain't no drill."

Aboard the USS Arizona
At 8:06 a.m. -- 12 hours after Van Hauser made the fateful choice not to stay with his friends on the ship -- they were dead. A 1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb flew into the Arizona's ammunition magazine, igniting a fire so hellish it would burn for two days.

Aboard the USS West Virginia
Arellano had just started to heave himself up onto his assigned gun turret when another seaman stepped on top of his head. "It seemed like he was in a hurry to get out of there," Arellano recalls. The sailor had just seen a bomb whistle past him, drop through the turret, and descend into the depths of the ship. Arellano found out a year later that the bomb had landed in the powder handling room, but failed to explode.

The Japanese had built a limited number of armor-piercing bombs, and the West Virginia took two of them. One disemboweled Captain Mervyn S. Bennion. "He didn't die right away," Arellano says, his eyes glistening. "He managed to man the loudspeaker and he said, 'All hands, abandon ship. God bless you.'"

The West Virginia was sinking. But to prevent it from rolling over on its side as the Oklahoma had done just a few berths away, a damage control team dived into the oily water -- which was on fire -- and blew the ballast tanks, causing the ship to right itself before settling to the bottom. "The ship was sinking right under me," says Arellano, who scrambled off the ship just as the second wave of Japanese bombers arrived with their deadly cargo.

Aboard the USS Tennessee
Almost as soon as he stepped onto the Tennessee, Arellano was handed a fire hose and ordered to fight a major fire on the fantail. He attacked the the fire until his breathing apparatus ran out of oxygen and he passed out. "The next thing I knew, I was looking up at the sky up on deck," he says.

The Arizona lay in front of him. "Even on the Tennessee, there were guys with flash burns from when the Arizona blew up," he says. "It actually cooked their eyeballs. Some of them were running blind on the deck of the Tennessee. Their flesh was hanging down off their face, and their eyeballs were burned out. A lot of them just ran a few feet and collapsed. That's what I remember more clearly than anything."

Aboard the USS St. Louis
By 9:30 a.m., Tait heard the command to cast off lines. The St. Louis was going to make a desperate escape through the south channel, where the sinking USS Nevada might block other ships from getting out.

The speed limit through the channel was 5 knots. "By the time we got to the mouth of the channel, we were doing 28 knots," Tait says. The ship's anti-aircraft guns would bring down three planes, but the light cruiser's troubles weren't over as it neared open waters.

"There was a two-man submarine waiting for us," Tait says. "They fired two torpedoes at us, but the torpedoes hit a reef and exploded." which led to the ship being dubbed the "Lucky Lou."


Never forget also that some men were not even fortunate enough to die quickly on that morning. In addition to those who were drowned, burned, crushed to death or killed by explosions on that Sunday morning, several others were trapped within the hulls of the sunken ships beyond hope of rescue, including three sailors who survived inside West Virginia for sixteen days before finally expiring on Christmas Eve when the oxygen in their compartment was finally depleted.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post Murph, and these are just some of the 'many' untold tales, that sadly will never be heard by John Q. Public. Slow death is a horrible way to go, and the rescuers also had to live with their failure for the rest of their lives...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great Post.
    There were 33 sets of brothers aboard the Arizonia

    ReplyDelete