CURTIS S. CORDER’S EXPERIENCES
DECEMBER 7, 1941
I was station on the U.S. S. West Virginia at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Sunday morning after breakfast four or five of us went down to the third deck to pass the time. The P.A. system sounded “Fire & Rescue”. When we got to the port galley deck we saw smoke coming from Hickam Field. Our first thought was a plane had crashed during maneuvers at Hickam Field until we saw planes coming from over the fleet landing toward the ships. Then we saw the torpedoes drop and when the planes pulled up we saw the red meat balls on their wings. This is when the P.A. system sounded “General Quarters”; “This is no drill! This is no drill!” Everyone scrambled to his battle station. On my way to the sky control platform about three torpedoes hit throwing water over the top of the ship.
No one was at sky control except one other look-out when I got there. The first thing we saw was the Oklahoma rolling over. The Japs were strafing us. After the torpedoes hit there was neither power nor communication. We decided we should go down to the unmanned 5.25 guns. As I was on my way down, another torpedo hit which knocked me off the ladder. Right after we were coming down from sky control our Skipper was hit with shrapnel from a bomb that hit the Tennessee next to us. We fired the guns until our ammunition ran out in the ready box. There was so much noise we couldn’t even tell the gun was firing except when it recoiled. We were still on the guns when the Arizona blew up. We were just ahead of the Arizona. The blast knocked all of us off the guns. We had a 35-degree list to port on the ship. We couldn’t get any more ammunition up because it was flooded down below. Our Gunnery Officer told us we had better abandon ship.
ABANDON SHIP! We went down the starboard side of the bow. I took one step into a porthole. I jumped into the water and was in oil from the ships. We I first came up I couldn’t see. I didn’t know if I was under water or above. Some where, some how, I had picked up a life jacket. (I had one when I got ashore; part of it had been blown away.)
By the time we jumped in, there were a lot of guys in the water. They couldn’t pass the word to abandon ship over the P.A. system so each section had to go on his officer’s orders. On my way swimming to the beach I came across a Chief Machinist Mate dog paddling along. I asked him if he needed some help and he said, “No, go ahead,” so I went on my way. I was wearing shorts and an undershirt, which made the swimming easier, but my shoes felt like they were pulling me down, so I kicked them off. It was probably the thick oil. I don’t know how I ever made it to the beach, but I did.
ON THE BEACH: I went up the bank. There were houses and trees where the officers lived. Some of us started running toward the airfield where trucks were picking guys up. One friend yelled to us to come get under the truck where he was because we were being strafed. We happened to look where he was and it was under a gasoline truck. We yelled at him that he was under a gasoline truck, to get out of there, and he came out like a bolt of lightning.
All of us started running back toward the houses. Zero fighters were strafing us. We were running all in a line, one behind the other. I was in front. The planes were so close we could see the faces of the pilots. Bullets were flying in front of us and at the sides of us. My thoughts were that I was dead because the bullets looked as if they were going right through us. Then I realized I was still running, so I was still alive. Then I dived over a big hedge fence and under a house.
That is the last thing I knew until I realized I was at the Ford Island Naval Base Air Field in the mess hall. They were taking the oil off me and cleaning me up. They gave me a Marine Corporal shirt, dungarees, and an officer gave me a pair of shoes.
There were a lot of wounded men in the mess hall. We tried to help make the injured boys more comfortable as much as we could. I lit a cigarette for a fellow who was badly burned. His lips were blistered up and his fingers were blistered so bad they looked like wieners. So I put the cigarette in his lips and I was afraid when I removed it that his blister might burst. The japs started bombing the mess hall. We took guys off the tables and put them under the tables, then we got under the tables ourselves.
There were about 15 B-17 planes coming in from the mainland. Our boys shot at them. Some crash-landed and some picked out any field they could find to land on. On the night of December 7, about 8:00 or 9:00, some planes from the U.S.S. Enterprise came into the harbor. When they saw what they were coming into they turned off their running lights. Then everybody opened up on them. Some made it in, some didn’t.
REORGANIZING: It is a little fuzzy to me now in what sequence the next actions took place. Guard watches were set up in expectation of another attack.
I was on guard duty at an Admiral’s home, which was beside an old casemate where they used to have shore battery guns. They put a 50 caliber and 30 caliber machine guns on top of the casemate. I looked like a bandito with a bandoleer on each shoulder.
About 11:30 we were told to keep strict look out for any movement. We saw a boat come in. It was a motor whaleboat but it was off a vessel. We yelled, “Boat Ahoy.” They didn’t answer. We fired a 50 caliber in front of them, then they yelled out they were off a vessel. Then we let them go by.
A palm tree started shaking next to the casemate like someone was climbing up it. I had a rifle with a bayonet all ready for him, but I saw it was one of our men. “What were you doing down there any way?” I asked. “I went down along the water to look to see if I could find any boats,” he answered. “You never told anyone?”
About 5:00 a.m. we were down inside the casemate. A plane came over way up high. Everyone opened up on it. We didn’t know if it was Japanese or what it was.
We had a seaman 1st class in our division named Sargent. When he arrived on the beach someone gave him a Marine uniform for dry clothing. He kept telling them, “I am a seaman in the Navy!” but he went on guard duty for the Marines anyway. One of the officers in our division found out about him later and went to his rescue.
All night long we could see and hear gunfire going on all over in the mountains. The night we stood guard duty it was black as the ace of spades. It was rumored that Japanese paratroopers were landing in the mountains.
For a couple of nights I was on guard duty at the transformer where there were relays and switches and all kinds of knobs. Someone was approaching. I said “Halt! Who goes there?” “A friend,” he says and started to walk on. “Come forward and be recognized,” I said, “or I will shoot.” It was a very perturbed officer who wanted my name, rate and number. “I am going to turn you into the authorities,” he says. I told him, “Anybody could say he was a friend.” I never heard anymore about it.
Somebody came up on a bike to check on the transformers. I almost shot him! I told him, “Don’t ever come up behind me like that again.”
I would take three or four days for the dead to pop up to the surface in the harbor. We would go out in a motor launch and drag them to the beach. Then put them in wooden caskets and try to I.D. their unrecognizable bodies from names stamped on their clothing. “Dog tags” did not come along until after the war got started.
Somewhere along the line of time, I was appointed to the U.S.S. Tennessee. I was asked if I had done any mess cooking duty. I said, “Yes, I don’t want anymore of that.” They put me on the guns to carry ammunition. We were on submarine alert while I was there. I carried ammunition for the U.S.S. Tangier AirCraft Tender all night long. Some of us asked for permission to go ashore for a smoke. They said O.K. We just left and reported to the receiving barracks. That is when they put me on guard duty at the big transformer.
They were looking for a crew to put on 5 inch 25 caliber anti-aircraft guns on the shore. When we got almost over there, he said, “They already have a crew for those, so we will put you on the U.S.S. Salt Lake City cruiser. I think that was how it was planned to begin with.
The guns were not yet installed on the ship so we had some free time while waiting for that to happen. Captain Zacharias greeted each one of us. He said, “You went through a hell of an experience but you are on a ship that we will get even with them. Get yourself a mattress on the well deck and blankets and sleep. We will assign you to a station in the next day or two.” The next day we were assigned a full sea bag again.
We were assigned to a station four decks down in the magazine. That is where the ammunition is stored. We put it in a 5-inch hoist to be drawn up to the top deck. One of the guys was pretty crazy and he kept saying, “I can hear a torpedo coming.” This about drove us all nuts. We told the chief gunner’s mate we wanted out of there. So we were assigned to 1.175 caliber pom poms after they were installed on the port side aft, the roughest part of the ship.
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