Witness to History: Pearl Harbor to Coral Sea by John Matheson
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, many of the West
Virginia crew were moved to the adjacent USS Tennessee. The West
Virginia had been moored outboard of the Tennessee, which was adjacent
to Ford Island. Many of us had swum ashore to Ford Island
and gathered at one of the buildings at the air station, then
transferred to the nearby Tennessee.
After several days, we were moved again, to the Fleet Recreation Center. As ships started to enter the harbor, they put out calls for survivors to fill out their complements. The procedure was to "fall in" and await developments. One call was for 150 men for the USS Lexington. My buddy Eddie Greene stepped out for "the Lex." but I pulled him back. Shortly after, the USS Minneapolis sought 35 survivors and Greene and I volunteered for the cruiser Navy.
In February, we were in a task force centered on the Lexington and were in the South Pacific. This is when the formation of 18 ( as I recall the number) Japanese bombers was detected, and headed toward the task force. Here is where [Butch] O'Hare started his feat. His little Grumman fighter dove into the attacking formation, then he would attack from underneath as he climbed into the formation. The Mitsubishis started to fall. The ships below were also firing anti-aircraft; I was in an aft fire-control director which controlled the port five-inch; the action was on the starboard side, so we in the director crew observed the entire incident. This was all we could do.
One of the attacking bombers was either badly damaged, or the pilot was wounded, or both, and he was losing altitude. He apparently decided to try to crash the Lexington, but splashed short of the target. (Was this the first kamikaze of World War II?) In any event, the T.F. escaped unscathed.
Several months later, Minneapolis was again with Lexington, this time in the Coral Sea. The Lex suffered damage that was beyond control, and her crew went over the side. Minneapolis and other ships pulled into position to pick up survivors; some of them were former shipmates from West Virginia, who were now two-time losers in a war that was only five months old. We put into Noumea, New Caledonia, to put off the Lex survivors.
One recollection of their short stay on "the Minnie" was how they laid currency to dry on overhead steam lines in the crew compartment. The recollection of O'Hare's feat remains vivid after all these years; having Chicago's major airport named for him serves as a constant reminder.
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