By December of 1941, my parents’ lives had settled into a routine. Every day Don went to work at Peppers’ oil refinery. Jim was making baby clothes and pinching her pennies to buy baby furniture. They got together every week end with Kaliteyo and Lahoma who lived just a block away, and Lahoma would come over to visit with Jim on her way home from school in the afternoons. Jim and Don were looking forward to spending their first Christmas together.
World War II seemed far away, until December 7, “a date which will live in infamy,” as President Roosevelt said, the US fleet was attacked at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. News of the attack threw the country into shock. Before that, the president had promised the people that they would not go to war, and they believed him. But after Pearl Harbor, everyone knew we were in it for the duration.
When details of the attack became known, and our family learned that Everett’s ship, the Battleship Oklahoma, had been sunk. They thought he must have been killed. It was almost a month before they learned that he was alive.
Grandmother Gunning sent a letter to Jim and Don:
Dec 30, 1941
My dear Don and Jim,
We had three cards and a note on a Christmas card they were mailed 9th, 14th, 15th of December from Everett. Said he was well. Would write at the first opportunity. Said mail would be slow, not to worry.
I am so happy and relieved. I wanted to call but decided to write.
He gave a new address
U.S.S. San Francisco 5th Div, c/o Fleet Postmaster. Pearl Harbor T.H.
I hope you are both fine. Thanks a lot for the lovely cloth and napkins, also the glasses. Hope you had a nice Xmas. We went with Dal’s to Mother’s for Xmas dinner. Let us hear from you.
Love Mother, Dad and J. E.
The story of the attack on Pearl Harbor has been retold many times, and the story of the sinking of the Battleship Oklahoma is described in the book, Trapped at Pearl Harbor, by Stephen Bower Young, but when Everett got to come home on leave about a year later, he told the story to my parents first hand.
The Japanese attack came at 0800, on December 7th, 1941, a Sunday morning. Most of the officers, including the captain of the USS Oklahoma were on shore. There was an inspection by the admiral scheduled for Monday, and so all the battleships in the fleet were in the harbor. Because it was Sunday, fewer reconnaissance planes went out, and for some reason, none went north, the direction of the attack.
The American planes on Oahu’s three airfields had been bunched together to better protect them from sabotage by the Japanese living on the island. This prevented them from taking off rapidly, and also made them sitting ducks for an air attack. Luckily the US aircraft carriers were all at sea.
Everett’s ship, the battleship Oklahoma, had a crew of 1354. The ship had four gun turrets, two pointing forward and two aft. Everett was a member of 4th division, the 60 man crew of gun turret #4, which supported one of the 14 inch guns. The ship also had a float plane for reconnaissance, and four antiaircraft guns. The battleship was like a small city.
In anticipation of an inspection on Monday, the firing mechanisms of the ship’s antiaircraft guns had been removed for cleaning and the ammunition stored away in locked magazines. The ship’s watertight compartments, which were supposed to prevent water from flooding into the ships if an explosion penetrated the hull, had been opened also in preparation for the inspection.
Many of the crew had been on shore leave the night before and had hangovers, so they were allowed to sleep in an extra hour on Sunday morning. Everett happened to be up and dressed. He was going ashore for church. He also had a date. Motor launches were already crisscrossing the harbor taking men and supplies to and from the ships. Everett and the others going on leave had all lined up and were standing on deck at attention for the raising of the colors and the playing of the national anthem by the ship’s band. When the Japanese planes started flying in low over the harbor the band had just begun to play. The men couldn’t understand it. Some thought the planes were from one of our carriers, simulating a real attack. Then they saw puffs of smoke rising up from Ford Island, in the center of the harbor.
Suddenly the ship’s PA system blared: “Man the antiaircraft batteries! Man the antiaircraft batteries!”
The men who were down below were startled, at least those who were awake. Everett’s crew wasn’t involved immediately. The turret guns were too big for any antiaircraft use. The antiaircraft gun crews ran to their stations, even though their guns were unfireable. The officer of the deck fumbled for the keys to the ammunition boxes and magazines anyway.
Then the next order came: “General Quarters! General quarters! All hands man your battle stations! All hands man your battle stations!”
When Ensign Rommel, the highest ranking officer on board, saw the planes coming in and saw the cruiser Helena, in dock, hit by a torpedo, he scrambled up into the control room and yelled over the PA, “This is no shit, God damn it. They’re real bombs! A cruiser has just been sunk! Now get going!” That finally got everyone’s attention.
On battleships, the gun turrets extended from above the deck where turret officers sat, down to the fourth deck below. The 1400 pound shells were hoisted up from the 3rd deck to the guns where they were loaded into the breeches by hydraulic rammers. Then 100 pound powder bags were sent up on an elevator from the powder handling room on the 4th deck, four bags behind each shell. The 60 man crew were assigned to positions throughout each of the four levels. The crew, most of whom were in their living quarters on the second deck at the time of the attack, headed for the ladders, to descend to their battle stations.
Ensign Rommel, realizing that the big 14 inch guns were useless against airplanes, was mainly concerned with the safety of his men. He climbed into the turret and ordered the men on the way to their battle stations to go down to the powder handling room, on the deepest level of the ship. He figured they would be safer there. Airplanes couldn’t sink battleships. They carried bombs, not torpedoes. He was wrong. The Japanese planes had been specially modified to carry torpedoes.
It was about that time that the first torpedo hit the port side of the ship. That woke the rest of the men. Their first thought was that the boiler had exploded. The ship began to list. On the main deck the men saw the tower of water sent up by the explosion and felt it splash down on them as they heard the shells from the Japanese planes strafing the deck. They looked up and saw the big red dots on the wings of the planes identifying them as Japanese. Meanwhile down below there was pandemonium. Many were knocked off the ladders by the explosion and were trying to get out of the way of the crush of sailors trying to get to their battle stations, or just to safety, some heading up and some down.
Only a few had heard the order from Rommel to go to the lower deck, so he, still convinced it was safer on the lower decks, stood by the hatch in the gun chamber and turned the men back as they came up the ladders. Everett went down with the others, and after a while the officers joined the men on the lower deck.
When another torpedo hit the ship, and the list became more pronounced. The junior officer with Ensign Rommel said he thought the ship was going down, so Rommel decided to go up on deck to see what was happening. He said he would come back and tell the men. By the time Rommel reached the upper deck another torpedo had hit the ship and water had started pouring in through the hatches.
He said, “I believe the ship is going down. Tell everybody to get out. Make sure you use the voice tubes; make sure everybody gets the word; make sure they get the word in the lower handling room.” Then he jumped into the water.
Everett and the other men below in the powder handling room hadn’t heard the order to abandon ship. After the second torpedo hit, the lights went out and they were thrown into darkness. They could hear equipment falling as the ship listed to the side. Oil was leaking down into the compartment making the floor slippery. The men tried to grab a bulkhead or some other structure to keep from falling. Then a third torpedo hit the ship. One of the cooks called out, “my breakfast dishes must be breaking.” He was answered by profanity. Finally the emergency lights came on.
When the order “Abandon ship! Abandon ship!” echoed down the turret, the ship had listed over so far that only a few could even reach the ladders. Even so the ladders were clogged with men. Some climbed up through the powder hoist. Everett made it to the gun chamber, but when he got there he found the hatch to the deck jammed. Looking for a way to escape, he remembered the narrow shell ejection hatch on the bottom of the turret chamber. He squeezed through the opening to the main deck which was now under water. As Everett stood up, holding onto the turret, the deck was slanting so much that water covered his feet. Sailors clung to the sides of the ship as Japanese planes continued to strafe the deck. Everett realized that the ship was getting ready to roll over so he dove into the water and swam away under water. As he swam three more torpedoes hit the ship.
Trying to get away from the ship, Everett swam under a pile of floating debris which blocked him from reaching the surface. Once free of the debris Everett still couldn’t swim because he couldn’t get his shoes off. He had shed his shirt and bell bottomed trousers fairly easily but his shoe laces got tangled and he couldn’t get them loose! Everett said later, “I almost drowned getting out of my shoes.” After that experience Everett never again laced his shoes all the way up.
In all, five torpedoes struck the Battleship Oklahoma. She listed further to her port side and finally rolled completely over. As water rushed in through the hatches and portholes the men inside were drowned. Ensign Frances C Flaherty and Seaman James Richard Ward refused to abandon ship, remaining in turret #3, shining a light so other crew members could see to escape, until the ship rolled over drowning them. Lt Aloysius H Schmitt, the chaplain, started out a porthole and then returned to assist other men and was also drowned when the ship sank. On the shell deck, the huge 1400 pound shells lashed to the bulkheads broke loose as the ship listed to the side, crushing the sailors in that compartment. It took the ship only 10 minutes to sink.
The attack lasted for two hours. During this time the Japanese planes kept coming in, torpedoing the ships, strafing the decks, and strafing the motor launches that were trying to rescue the men in the water. The smoke was so thick the men couldn’t see the sun. Sailors held to anything that would float. They managed to cut a few life rafts loose from the decks, and also the float plane.
Everett swam out to the float plane that was upside down next to the ship and held on to one of the pontoons. As more survivors joined him the pontoon sunk lower and lower in the water. Everett laid on it and held out his arms and legs so that more men could hold on. As they watched, the planes kept diving down. Docked next to the USS Oklahoma was the USS Maryland, another battleship that had been torpedoed and was sinking. Someone on her deck had managed to get an antiaircraft gun working and was trying to fire back at the Japanese planes. The USS Arizona’s deck had been hit by a specially designed armor piercing shell which exploded her ammunition magazines. She sank immediately and almost all of her crew were lost. The sailors in the water watched, horrified, as 25 or 30 men trapped on the Arizona’s foremast were burned alive by the flames leaping up from the deck. Some tried to jump, but the oil on the water was on fire also.
The oil was Everett’s next problem. A huge sheet of oil extended out from every ship that had been hit and the men in the water were covered with it. It was difficult to even see men in the water because of the oil. Al Sandall, another of Everett’s shipmates clinging to the pontoon, said that the oil on the water was a foot thick! One of the Oklahoma’s crew was struck by a rescue launch that didn’t see him, breaking his leg. The men’s skin and clothes were so slippery from the oil that rescue crews couldn’t pull them into the boats. Everett saw a man drown right in front of a rescue boat because the crew couldn’t get him on board.
Everett was the last man to be rescued from the pontoon. By the time the launch finally came, the fire on the oil covering the water had almost reached him, and he was standing on the pontoon to escape the flames. In order to avoid the fate of the sailor he had seen drown next to the rescue boat, he dove head first into the launch.
Once Everett and the other sailors were in the launch they took off their oil soaked skivvies, so they were naked when they got to the shore. Al Sandall was rescued from the float plane along with Everett, and as they reached the fleet landing it suddenly occurred to Everett that he didn’t have any clothes on, and there was a crowd of dock workers watching as the sailors were getting out of the launch. Before Everett stood up he turned to his shipmate and said, “What do I do now, Al?” Sandall replied, “Don’t worry. No one knows you from Adam.” Then they both got up and walked through the crowd.
Everett said that when the men got ashore they looked for a way to fight back. They expected a land attack to follow the bombing. There were no land based antiaircraft guns they could use. One of Everett’s shipmates found an old Springfield rifle and fired it at the Japanese planes as they flew by. The rescued sailors tried to help in any way they could. They got back into the rescue launches and returned to help rescue others. They helped carry the wounded to the relative safety of the shore. They helped fight the fires. All the while the Japanese continued bombing and strafing the ships and the rescue launches, even the hospital.
Back in the ship there were many still alive, trapped in air pockets where they grew weaker and weaker as the oxygen in the air became depleted. It was mostly dark inside the Oklahoma, except where men were able to save battery powered battle lanterns. They were standing in water and oil, next to the bodies of their ship mates who had drowned or been killed by falling debris as the ship sank. The men wracked their brains for ways to escape from the ship, now upside down. They dived into the water going from one compartment to another, looking for escape routes. Some managed to escape through submerged hatches or portholes, many didn’t.
The lower powder handling room, where Everett and the rest of the crew of gun turret 4 had initially been sent, was in the deepest part of the ship. There were about 15 men trapped there. They had a battle lantern which they used sparingly to conserve the batteries. The men explored the various exits to the room. The hatch to the shell handling room above was blocked by the huge 1400 pound shells. The powder hoist through which some had escaped earlier now pointed straight down and was filled with water. The only exit was a ladder well, called a trunk, which extended up, now down, 21 feet through the three decks between them and the main deck of the ship, and it was filled with water.
The men in the powder handling room discussed attempting an escape through the trunk. They would have to pull themselves down the ladder 21 ft to the main deck, make their way another 35 ft across the deck, and then up 30 feet to the surface of the water. One man went down and didn’t come back. Another made several trips and then gave up. Eventually three men managed to escape that way, an incredible feat. One of the men who escaped couldn’t swim, but he managed to stay on the surface until he was rescued. Another was so exhausted that his muscles refused to move when he got to the surface, and he almost drowned before the rescue launch got him aboard. As time passed the men still trapped inside became too weak to make the effort to escape. All they could do was to tap “SOS” on the wall of the compartment in Morse code hoping to be heard from the outside.
After the attack was over, efforts began to rescue the men trapped inside the USS Oklahoma. The rescuers, armed with pneumatic hammers and chisels broke through the part of the main deck that was above water and into the ship’s dead spaces where they worked their way back to the compartments where the men were trapped. Only 6 men were left alive in the powder handling room of the Oklahoma after being trapped there for 25 hours in the darkness and the stale dank air of the small compartment. When the men finally came out into the light and saw the devastation left by the attack, one of them said, “It looks like we lost the war.”
2403 men were lost in the attack on Pearl Harbor. 18 American naval vessels were sunk or badly damaged in the attack, including 8 battleships, every battleship in the Pacific fleet. 180 planes were destroyed and 120 crippled. From the battleship Oklahoma 448 sailors died, 400 of whom were trapped inside her hull. 32 sailors were rescued the next day by the crew that broke through the hull of the ship. The Japanese lost only 29 planes in the attack and afterwards celebrated a great victory, but their attack was not as devastating as they had hoped. They had failed to sink even one American aircraft carrier and Pearl Harbor’s repair facilities and fuel stores remained undamaged. What was even more disastrous for them was the fact expressed so eloquently by the remark attributed to the Japanese naval commander Isoroku Yamomoto: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Everett and the other survivors from the battleship Oklahoma were given their choice of ships for their next assignment. Everett chose the USS San Francisco, a heavy cruiser which had been at Pearl Harbor for repairs at the time of the Japanese attack, but had not been hit. He didn’t return to the United States until a year later when the USS San Francisco was severely damaged in the battle of Guadalcanal.
Everett told us that as he was walking down the street in San Francisco he saw one of his shipmates from the USS Oklahoma whom he believed had been killed in the attack. As they talked, Everett confessed to the man that since they had thought him dead the men had divided his belongings among them, and that he was wearing his socks.!