My grandfather served in the Navy throughout most of World War II. On the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was stationed in California, and was immediately shipped out as part of a convoy from San Diego. He arrived in Hawaii a few weeks after the attack, and forty-five years later he was finally able to write about it.
As the Harris sailed into the harbor, we stood dumb-founded at the sight that met our eyes. Everywhere we looked there was only destruction and the ravages of the December 7th attack. The water in the bay was covered with thick, black, tarry oil that appeared to be several inches thick, mixed with floating debris resulting from the explosions and fires. Articles of clothing, life jackets, and a lone white sailor’s hat that had somehow remained snowy clean gave mute evidence to the loss of life. Here and there smoke still rose from smoldering wreckage. When we passed what used to be known as Battleship Row, there were gasps of disbelief. We saw nothing but the burned and sunken hulks of our once proud Pacific Fleet. The USS Oklahoma had capsized after having been torpedoed. The Maryland and Tennessee were both heavily damaged. The Nevada, victim of both bomb and torpedo attack, had been beached to prevent her sinking. The California and West Virginia had gone down at their anchorage. Even the aged Utah, an unarmed target vessel, had been destroyed. But worst of all was the USS Arizona. Struck by both heavy bombs and torpedoes, her magazines exploding, the gallant old battlewagon was totally demolished. What had remained had sunk to the bottom of the harbor with over 1,000 members of her crew trapped inside her hull. The only evidence of her ever having existed was her foremast jutting from the murky waters, twisted and burned, albeit with colors and pennant still flying from the masthead.
The entire harbor reeked with the stench of death. We were to later see other damage. The destroyers USS Cassin and Downes were nothing but burnt-out shells in a dry dock they had shared with the battleship Pennsylvania, which miraculously received little damage. The aircraft, building, and equipment losses were still being assessed weeks after the attack. The Pearl Harbor Naval Base was almost completely destroyed.
It was almost dark by the time the Harris dropped anchor. Immediately, we were transferred to the repair ship USS Whitney by whaleboats. We couldn’t see much of her as we made it to her landing stage. There was no illumination other than a few red-colored battle lanterns. We moved up her ladders in a state of uncertainty, trying hard not to stumble. Anyone who might fall into the mucky, polluted waters below, burdened with all his gear, would become a statistic. In spite of the awkwardness of moving around in the dark, our draft did get up to the main deck without losing anyone. Given life jackets with quick instructions in their use, we were told to sack out right there on deck for the night. Somebody would come around later with hot coffee and sandwiches. Considering the turmoil and confusion that existed at the time, it was no surprise that the chow never appeared. We went to sleep hungry that night, but I heard no complaints.
As we arranged our seabags and life jackets along the deck, trying to stay out of the crew’s way, it dawned on us that it was Christmas Eve—for many of us our first Christmas away from home. We were a bunch of teenaged kids, scared to death and trying very hard not to let it show. I doubt if many of us slept that night. There were a lot of whispered prayers, and every now and then you could hear a muffled sob. One of the guys down the line called out softly, “Good night guys, and Merry Christmas.” There were a few more sobs to be heard, and I think one of them might have been mine. Still, despite everything, we did have something to cling to. After all, as our buddy had said, it was Christmas. I guess as we lay there in the darkness on our first wartime Christmas Eve, we were all truly hoping for peace on Earth, and good will toward all men.
The next morning, Christmas morning, we were awakened by the growl of airplane engines as the dawn patrol was preparing for takeoff. Everyone jumped up to line the rail and watch. Several consolidated PBY patrol flying boats were taxiing through the oil-covered waters to finally rise and head out to sea. It didn’t seem likely the Japs would be hanging around for a return engagement, but we were all very new to the business of war, and no chances were being taken.
There was still a holiday dinner of turkey, ham, and all the trimmings, and church services were held for those who wished to attend. Not many guys showed up. I don’t know if it was a lack of faith or just a strong sense of survival. The chapels were all located below deck, and it somehow seemed a lot safer topside. We remained on deck, watching the base as best we could and talking amongst ourselves about what we had seen and what our hopes were for the future. It was not the sort of yuletide we were used to, but one we would get to know well in the years ahead...
Today is Memorial Day. Let us all share a prayer for our honored dead, and a thank you to all the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, or who are currently on active duty.