Pearl Harbor

About 0745, Bill Warren shook me awake with “Pearl Harbor is being bombed!” I staggered up and, believing I was simply the victim of a practical joke, I stuck my head into the wardroom to confront my malefactor. “Bombs are falling in Manoa Valley! Parachutists are reported near the Pali! The smoke from ships burning at Pearl Harbor can be seen from the top of the Press Building!” Four officers were in the wardroom, glued to the radio listening to Radio Honolulu. It was either real or the hoax was elaborate!

To prepare for the worst, I quickly took a shower, shifted into clean working khakis, went to the wardroom and ordered a stack of hotcakes with fried eggs on top. A torrent of unbelievable information was pouring in from the radio, even that battleships had been sunk by aircraft bombs! Hughson, pale as a ghost, said nothing had come in over the official circuits. The consensus in the wardroom was that something was going on but the information coming over the radio was not believable.

About 0900 the General Alarm sounded and we manned our battle stations. It was a beautiful day and the seas had subsided so the Task Force could maneuver at any speed necessary. The captain’s voice came over the General Announcing System speakers and told all hands that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. He instructed us to act as though war had been declared and be ready to use our weapons. Within a few minutes, the force, now in a circular Battle Formation, was turned into the Northeast wind and 36 SBD Scout Bombers were launched to conduct an All Around Search. The Combat Air Patrol of four F4F fighters was relieved by double that number.

In a little while, one of the destroyers reported “Sound Contact” and attacked with depth charges. The Task Force maneuvered out of danger at high speed. A bit later, a destroyer on the opposite side of the screen opened up with its 5-inch battery pointed high in the sky, reporting “High Altitude Bomber!” Other ships joined in the firing, but, in Maury, we saw nothing to shoot at. After much discussion over the TBS, it was realized that the firing had been at Venus, which can be seen on a clear day by good eyes that are really trying. Periodically ships reported other Sound Contacts and many more depth charges were expended. Whales were sighted on several of the occasions, but no one was in a mood to take a chance.

After nearly four hours, all but one of the Scout Bombers returned and reported no contacts. Nothing was heard from the missing SBD, but it was later learned that it had been shot down by a Japanese fighter before it could transmit a warning. Toward evening, a few surviving ships that had sortied from Pearl after the attack joined our Force and our number was increased by a couple of Light Cruisers and several destroyer types. By this time, there was no doubt that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, but the extent of damage was unknown. Nothing had been heard from the Japanese since the end of the second raid about 1000. There had been no authenticated contact reports at all! Unofficial news from Radio Honolulu seemed confused and unreliable.

As the sun set on Sunday the 7th, Adm. Halsey ordered a “Night Search and Attack” to the South. With a limited number of ships, our destroyers in a long line abreast at 5,000-yard intervals with the now five cruisers abreast following astern. Enterprise with two escorts faded astern into the night. The Search speed was 27 knots as we plunged south into a completely black night over a long rolling Pacific sea. In the red glow of the rangekeeper dials in the director, we reviewed all of our action procedures to be sure we were ready. Every eye strained into the black to find an enemy shadow. The Damage Control party brought coffee and sandwiches to the battle stations. One by one, men were permitted to go below briefly to the head. The night wore on and the sea became glassy, reflecting the stars. By midnight, nothing had been found and we were running low on fuel, so the search was called off and we rejoined the carrier and her escorts.

At dawn on 8 December, we commenced our “Entry” to Pearl Harbor, an elaborate maneuver starting 25 miles at sea. Leading the way, the destroyers swept a path up to the entrance buoy, wheeled Right and Left to clear the flanks, and headed out to form an arc to seaward as the “heavies” passed up the “swept channel.” On arrival at the entrance about 0800, we learned “Harbor Control” was not ready to receive us, so out to sea we went again and repeated the whole operation. The second time we arrived, about noon, the ant-submarine gate was open and Task Force 8 started to enter Pearl.

Maury was nearly the last to enter. I was in charge of the fantail since Armstrong had been called to the Bridge for Special Sea Details. As the ship passed through the gate of the torpedo net at the entrance, an oil smeared officer’s motorboat from one of the battleships, manned by a motley crew of sailors and marines, each armed with some sort of weapon, passed close under the stern to make sure we were not being followed by a midget submarine. Someone shouted, “We heard on the radio that two battleships had been sunk by the Japs. That’s not true is it?” “Nah! They got five!” came the reply!

As we steamed slowly up the channel, the devastation of Hickham Field came into view. Smoke was still rising from shattered aircraft and hangars. The beautiful lawns of the Officer’s Quarters, which lined the channel, had been dug up for machinegun nests and foxholes. Up ahead a huge column of black smoke was rising, but the source was not yet in sight. A gasp from the men to Port announced the appearance of USS Nevada, beached high on the West side of the channel, her stern awash and her superstructure burned out. To Starboard, just above Hospital Point, we caught sight of the Floating Drydock holding USS Shaw, a smashed toy, down by the bow and listing heavily. Beyond Shaw, smoke was still rising from the big drydock where the fleet flagship, USS Pennsylvania and the destroyers Cassin and Downes had been caught by the enemy bombs. Ahead at “1010 Dock,” the Light Cruiser Helena was trapped by the Minelayer Oglala, which had been torpedoed amidships and rolled over in her berth.

To Port the curtain rose on the main event, Battleship Row! With Ford Island and its shattered planes and smashed hangars providing a smoking backdrop, the backbone of the U.S. Pacific Fleet lay in ruins. In the foreground loomed the keel of the capsized Oklahoma, still rising some 30 ft above the water at the bow, with half a dozen figures moving about her exposed bottom trying to locate survivors within. Beyond in majestic disarray, no mast vertical nor waterline intact, lay California, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee and the totally shattered Arizona, still burning and the source of the huge column of black smoke we had seen while still at sea. The scene was overwhelming! Not only had our Battle Line been knocked out, our whole professional sense of values had been jolted apart. The myth of the invincibility of the armored battleship had evaporated. The power of the fragile airplane was indisputable. No one said a word!

DesDiv 11 was sent to the Submarine Piers to take on stores and ammunition. We moored two abreast and hardly got our lines ashore when a train came alongside with boxcars full of everything a ship needs. Requisitions, inventories, chits and all of the troublesome paperwork of peacetime were forgotten. We filled her up with everything she could hold. Frozen beef, chicken, pork, turkeys, eggs, potatoes, fresh green vegetables and every delicacy poured aboard. I was in charge of ammunition and we loaded 5-inch projectiles and powder cans to fill every space in the magazines and ready service rooms we could find. For depth charges, we filled the depth charge magazine in addition the full load in our racks and K-guns. Meanwhile a very secretive crew had come aboard from the Torpedo Station and were busily removing our normal Contact Exploders and substituting a new Magnetic Exploder in each of our 16 torpedoes.

While this huge re-provisioning was going on, survivors from damaged ships came aboard asking to join our ship’s company. We readily accepted some 25 new crewmembers to help in the loading and to stand the Condition Watches that lay ahead. These men had only the soiled clothes they wore, so we scurried ashore to get uniforms and shoes.

Men with wives ashore were given permission to go ashore for a short time to try to contact them by telephone. The tales they brought back added lurid details to the expanding story of Sunday morning, but none of our ship’s family had been hurt. All were living in a vacuum of official information and most were fearful of additional attacks by the Japanese and invasion of the Islands. With our Battle Fleet out of commission, what was to stop them?

After the ammunition had been struck below, I went to the forecastle to check the mooring lines. The Torpedo Gang of Balch, moored just ahead of us, was about to load depth charges into her stern racks. I had moved forward to the bullnose to get a better view of the lines and was perhaps 50 ft. above and abaft the stern of Balch when the first depth charge was loaded. It rolled aft to the last position in the rack where the detents would hold it, but it didn’t stop! It rolled right out of the end of the DC rack and splashed into the water beneath my feet! It was a loaded, 600 lb. depth charge with its pistol in place! I held my breath and, with everyone else who could see what was going on, expected to be blown to eternity. Nothing happened! The seconds passed to a minute. Nothing was going to happen! The pistol was apparently on SAFE! I tiptoed aft, my legs like water.

After provisioning and fuelling, we were sent out to buoys in the northern sector of Pearl Harbor to await further orders. As dusk fell, occasional streams of machinegun tracers illuminated the sky as gunners tested their weapons in anticipation of another attack. As we secured from General Quarters and set the Condition III watch for the night, almost all hands tumbled into their bunks without bothering to eat. The first day and a half of war had taken its toll.

Bit by bit we began to learn what had happened. No one knew how it started because no one realized it was starting. Bombs and torpedoes started exploding, but most observers couldn’t bring their minds to understand they were real. Most thought it was some kind of Mock Attack, staged to test Fleet readiness on a sleepy Sunday morning. Even when they saw the red “Meatballs” on the wings of the Jap planes, they still thought it was a drill... that is, until they saw gaping holes blown in their ships, felt the heat of the explosions, heard fragments rattle close aboard. They rushed to their battle stations, hoping to fight back, but found things locked, men missing, power turned off and general chaos. Some machineguns opened fire quickly and some 5-inch batteries got into action, especially on the second attack, but the attackers seemed to have gotten to all of their objectives without being stopped. There didn’t seem to be any Air opposition to their attacks. No one had seen any of the Army Pursuit planes in the air, the only carrier in the area was Enterprise and she didn’t know what was going on until too late. Our Navy planes at Ford Island and Ewa didn’t get off the ground!

The stories of Japanese Midget Submarines added a bizarre twist to an already unbelievable scenario. Reliable officers had reported sighting them and even engaging them with gunfire, but there were no torpedo hits attributed to them and they had all disappeared. The Ward, on Offshore Patrol at the entrance to Pearl reported engaging and sinking a normal submarine and that made sense, but little tiny submarines capable of maneuvering around the harbor and shooting real torpedoes! Science fiction, no doubt about it!

Though the damage was obviously enormous, its true extent was not clear. Certainly Oklahoma and Utah were gone for good since they were bottoms up in the harbor. Arizona was apparently finished since her superstructure was blown to pieces and she was still burning to the waterline. Nevada was severely damaged topside and beached, but the extent of damage to the remaining battlewagons was not known. Pennsylvania had had a hot time in the drydock, but she neither sank nor blew up, and the five survivors of Battleship Row were an unknown quantity. Luckily, none of our carriers had been in port when the attack came in and, except for Cassin, Downes, and Shaw, which were all in drydock, destroyers were almost neglected and cruisers got away with minimal damage.

Our loss of life was heavy because so many had been trapped in the battleships. We didn’t know the exact toll, but there were enough dead to set up a temporary morgue in one of the Navy Yard warehouses. Certainly over a thousand had been killed and we heard that all of the hospitals were crammed with wounded.

Uncertainty was in the air and it seemed to touch everything except our overwhelming determination to “get even” with the Japs. Radio Honolulu even stopped broadcasting details of damage for fear that it would be aiding the enemy. There was no official information—from now on, every bit of information about our status and intentions would be classified SECRET! Only Task Force 8 and a few additional cruisers and destroyers stood in the way of an assault. The bombers at Hickham Field were smoldering wrecks and we hadn’t seen an Army Pursuit plane since we arrived. It seemed obvious that the Japanese would attack again as soon as they could because we were in such a helpless state!

The stories from ashore were deeply disturbing. Bomb hits were reported in almost all parts of Honolulu. Parachutists had been reported in several locations and at one time fierce fighting had been reported in the valley leading to the Pali. It was obvious that the attackers had precise knowledge about their targets and there were numerous reports that Japanese spies had been found, especially in the hills overlooking Pearl. We felt trapped and exposed in the landlocked harbor and wanted to get out to sea where we had room to fight.

News from the States reported that President Roosevelt had denounced the attack and asked Congress for a Declaration of War against Japan. He counseled the people to be calm but revealed his deep concern by ordering a “blackout” of the entire West Coast. An attack on California could well be the next step! The perfidy of the Japanese diplomats, negotiating for peace up to the moment the bombs fell, solidified our belief that the Japanese were unprincipled barbarians.

It was also clear that the Japanese bombs and torpedoes had worked well … too well! It was hard to accept that aircraft had put our heavily armored battleships on the bottom, but, despite the Navy’s hatred of Gen. Billy Mitchell, the evidence was there. Rumor said the bombs were really 16-inch Projectiles hastily fitted with fins. Clever explanations were developed to explain how the Japanese had managed to use aerial torpedoes in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor—a feat we could not duplicate. The fact that our fleet had been devastated by a skillful enemy using very effective weapons was hard to accept. The infamy of the Pearl Harbor attack was in the social and political realm. Militarily, it was perfectly executed and a huge success.

On the morning of the 9th, Task Force 8 slipped silently to sea. Rounding Ford Island in the gloomy dawn, the extent of the damage ashore became more evident. Except for a few planes flown in for special missions from Enterprise, the field was littered with charred wrecks and surrounded by burned out buildings. We passed the old Target Battleship Utah, lying on her side in the mud. She had served well, attracting bombs that might have struck more valuable ships. Al Gebelin related that his wife had been sitting on the beach at Pearl City, just across the channel from Utah’s berth and watched the whole thing, believing it was a drill until the old ship started to roll over.

As we stood out the channel, new B-17s from the States were beginning to land at Hickham. At the Entrance torpedo net, a cleaner boat with more weapons was patrolling, but the crew was just as grimly determined. As we cleared the channel and started our sweep to seaward, it was with a new seriousness. Each “ping” of the sound gear was listened to by a dozen attentive ears. The day was gray and gloomy, befitting our mood. As she cleared the Entrance buoy, Enterprise increased speed to 27 knots and started a radical ZigZag. The cruisers and destroyers took their places on the protective circles around her, guarding her with special interest. She was all we had. She was the remaining striking power of the Pacific Fleet! We disappeared into the gloom and made our way to the North of the Islands. It was rough, cold and rainy, but we were in place to intercept another attack.

Copyright © 2003 Capt. Russell S. Crenshaw, Jr., USN (Ret.)