" CLIMB MOUNT FUJI "
To the Japanese task force approaching Hawaii, these words meant: " Surprise achieved. Proceed with attack ". To me it meant four years of lifestyle I would never have voluntarily chosen.
"The island of Oahu is under enemy attack". Such were the words of Webley Edwards from Honolulu radio station KGMB at about 7:55 AM. Hawaiian time Sunday, December 7, 1941.That explained why the ground below and the atmosphere above were vibrating. Tremendous explosions filled the skies with black smoke punctuated with blossoms of exploding anti aircraft shells.
My first reaction was that the German Battleship, BISMARCK, rumored to be in the Pacific, was being chased by British warships and was headed for a "neutral" harbor. But the next message from KGMB's Edwards ended that speculation. "I have been informed by Army and Navy Intelligence that the island of Oahu is under enemy attack. The enemy has been identified as Japan. All military personnel return to their military duty stations."
Several of us had overnighted at the home of Harold and Belva DeGroff. This fine couple was representatives of the Navigators, a Christian organization ministering to military personnel in Hawaii. Eight of us were finishing breakfast provided by my new bride of six months. The DeGroffs were away for the weekend and we were standing in for them at their large home at 2744 Kalihi Street.
As we hurriedly pulled on our uniforms, Herb Goeldner, a shipfitter on the USS ARGONNE, pulled into the driveway in his car. He had left us a few minutes earlier to teach a Bible Study aboard ship but half way down the six-mile journey to Pearl Harbor he saw the opening phase of the attack and turned around to provide transportation for the rest of us.
My first reaction was "so this is war." When I joined the Navy in 1932 and reenlisted in 1938, I knew that I had been trained to fight. And now it was reality. My immediate concern was for my wife, Morena. As we piled into the car, I quoted a verse from the Bible to her. She responded with, "The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms." We had no assurance that we would ever see each other again in this life.
The mountain walls of Kalihi valley hid our view from Pearl Harbor as we sped down Kalihi Street. Three or four minutes later we came to the end of the valley. We looked in unbelief at the devastation the Japanese aviators were inflicting on the ships in the harbor.
A line of cars was slowly getting through the main gate to the Naval Base so we went a few hundred yards to the Submarine Base Gate where our Christian friend and fellow Navigator Harold Blakeslee was on duty. He waved us through without stopping us as he repeatedly emptied his rifle firing at the Japanese planes.
What about my 10 AM class of High School students at the Honolulu Bible Training School in downtown Honolulu? Would they come to class and wait for me? There was no way to communicate with them.
Anticipating our soon return to the mainland, I had drawn all of my money out of the bank and had it in the post office safe. It amounted to $450.00. All of the money we had beside that was what Morena had in her purse. I wondered if the safe survived the explosions and sinking of the WEST VIRGINIA? (It didn't and my personal effects, notebooks, and other valuable papers were never recovered).
Was I surprised? Not totally. After President Roosevelt ordered the Pacific Fleet to change home base from California to Honolulu in 1940, fleet Commander in Chief Admiral Richardson flew to Washington D.C. to give the president his opinion that basing the Pacific fleet in Hawaii did not send a warning message to Japan.
The Admiral told the president that before going into combat the Battleships would have to return to the west coast Navy yards to weld up their port holes, take up the fire hazardous teakwood decks, to load their wartime ammunition allowance, and accomplish other war fitting out items. These facts were well known to the Japanese. Actually what we were doing was of benefit to them. The president's response was to fire Richardson and replace him with Rear Admiral H.E. Kimmel on whose flagship, the USS HOUSTON, Roosevelt had taken a fishing trip to Panama after opening the mini world's fair at Treasure Island a few years earlier.
Then there was the fateful weekend.
For eighteen months the Navy kept one third of the fleet at sea to protect against attack and be in a state of readiness for battle. The part of the fleet of which I was a part was on patrol for ten days ending December 5, 1941. During our last patrol we sighted periscopes of supposedly Japanese submarines shadowing us.
Tension between the United States and Japan was such that the Japanese
deceptively dispatched a special "peace ambassador" to Washington,
D.C. In order to impress him President Roosevelt ordered the Task Force on
patrol into port so "peace ambassador"
Kurutsu would see our peaceful intentions. One hundred sixty four Navy and Coast Guard ships of all types and sizes were jammed into Pearl Harbor.
(The Honolulu bus system was so overburdened I had to wait in line for nearly two hours on Saturday afternoon December 6, while the busses shuttled from Pearl Harbor to Honolulu and back to pick up a new load of passengers0.
Kurutsu's flying boat landed in Pearl Harbor Friday afternoon December 5th. He got an eye full as his plane taxied along Battleship row. The next morning as I watched his flying boat take off for the West Coast and Washington, D.C.,I hoped war was not imminent not knowing the Japanese attack fleet of consisting of six aircraft carriers, 2 battleships, 2 heavy cruisers, 3 submarines and eight tankers and support ships were approaching Oahu.
Back to our arrival at Peal Harbor; my ship, the USS WEST VIRGINIA, was moored to a quay wall at Ford Island. We had to travel a quarter of a mile via motor launch to reach the ship. As we hopped out of the car at the Navy landing we discovered there were no boats running.
Their crews we using the boats to pick up the survivors from the oil covered water. Millions of gallons of crude oil from the sunk and sinking ships welled up on the surface several inches deep and extending out about 75 yards from the burning ARIZONA. A 30-inch blazing wall of fire thwarted their efforts to rescue the men blown overboard and trying to escape fiery death.
Then an olive drab plane, painted exactly like our Army Air Force planes, flew toward us. The pilot banked and his machine gunner's bullets dug a trench at out feet. He was so close we could see his determined countenance. As the plane leveled we saw the rising sun painted under the wings. All of a sudden the war became personal. The drive for survival, even at the expense of an enemy's life, became paramount.
Then the most sobering moment so far. The tanker USS NEOSHO was moving from Ford Island to the nearby submarine base pier. In the narrow channel only a few yards from us her superstructure looked like a skyscraper. She was loaded with about six million gallons of aviation gasoline. One bomb or even a strafing run and we would be blown to bits as well as every thing within a quarter of a mile. There was no place to take shelter. We could only anticipate what was so sure to happen within minutes or seconds.
Continuing in the parameter of disaster we went to the ferry landing. We had to pass by Dry Dock number 1 with the damaged Battleship Pennsylvania showing her bare hull and the two destroyers Cassin and Downes twisted hulls burning and lying at odd angles in the same dry dock as the Pennsylvania.
As the ferry crossed the channel we could see my proud home for the past eight and a half years. Eight or nine torpedoes and two 2000-pound bombs had done their work well. As well as other damage a 140-foot hole had been blown above the second deck on the port side. She had been counter flooded to avoid capsizing and was resting on the bottom at a 6 degree angle in about 40 feet of water with her starboard side jamming the Battleship TENNESSEE against the quay wall.
Practically undamaged the TENNESSEE'S' gun crews had fired every round of anti aircraft ammunition on board.
I boarded the Tennessee from Ford Island and slid down a five inch gun barrel onto the slanting deck of the WEST VIRGINIA so covered with oil it was impossible to stand. Being a Gunner's mate I knew the hazard if the ready ammunition on topside exploded from the oncoming flames. (The fire eventually burned everything above the waterline). I manned a hose with water pressure from the TENNESSEE and cooled the ready ammunition lockers.
One hundred feet from our stern flames from the burning Arizona leaped skyward like a volcano and the burning oil, not confined to a boiler firebox, set fire to the oil on the water in the surrounding area.
Ahead of us, the bottom of the OKLAHOMA, never visible except in dry dock, seemed strikingly out of place with her huge propellers reaching hopelessly into the air.
Next I began assisting those who were removing the dead and wounded. I had never handled a body before and was challenged by the effort of trying to lift dead weight equaling my own. I made a mental note to write to the family of one of my friends, the Gunner's Mate whose shattered body I was loading onto a boat bound for the hospital morgue.
I grieved as I viewed the human massacre and demolished ships and the oil soaked teakwood decks of the WEST VIRGINIA, which no amount of "holy stoning " could remove. As I looked at what had been her beautiful gray superstructure now blackened and warped, my emotion was anger. Our trusted leadership had failed us.
I was angry at the unchecked ambition of the leaders of a people who gave support to such "mystic beliefs as the Emperor's reputed descent from the sun goddess and his divine mission was to rule the world." (Encyclopedia Americana). I was angry that the empire building ambition of Japan imperialists got away with sinking the USS PANAY in December 12, 1937 with only a whimper of protest from our government. They could now proceed with the plan finalized in 1927 to occupy Manchuria and more of China and then proceed to occupy and loot Indonesia as the heart of the "southern resources area" to get the rubber, tin, and oil needed to build a world conquering war machine.
(I was on hand to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor). Listening to the historically uninformed or misinformed narrator at the USS ARIZONA visitor Center, my anger was rekindled as he seemed to blame the United States for starting the war ignoring the facts of history which show that, "From 1904 to 1941 Japan was planning to build an empire encompassing the most populated regions of Asia" (Encyclopedia Americana)
My next response was resolve. If I ever got in a place of authority we would never again get caught napping. (My resolve was tested later as the Captain of a Navy Ship during the cold war was when I refused to allow unfriendly ships to deny me the right of way I was entitled to in international waters). I believed and still do that to exhibit weakness is to invite aggression).
(Nearly sixty years later I do not harbor a spirit of unforgiveness in my heart against the Japanese people. But our present and future leaders, even if the have not personally experienced the horror of war, must realize that there will always be tyrannical leaders with a passion for imposing their will on their fellow man. Their ambition against our nation can only be thwarted by keeping our armed forces so strong they don't dare challenge us in armed conflict. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association's watchword have said it best. "REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR, KEEP AMERICA ALERT". I would add, keep America STRONG".
As Santayana has said," Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".
I was disappointed personally. My ship was scheduled to undergo overhaul at the Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington. Since my new bride and I had been separated more than half the time since our marriage in July 1941, we had looked forward to having some weekends and evenings together.
As I look back on that devastating morning more than 50 years ago, my strongest emotion during the attack was peace. Shortly before the attack I had read about a British soldier who was part of the 340,000 British Expeditionary Force awaiting evacuation at Dunquerque.
They were under constant bombardment and strafing by German aircraft. Because he was right with God and in a vital relationship with his risen Savior Jesus Christ, he experienced indescribable peace in his heart and mind. He evens organized and played games of soccer.
In moments of danger, I experienced the same peace.
The Pearl Harbor experience changed my spiritual life permanently. When there
is real danger, God's peace indwells His own, the Christian. When I am tempted
to worry and be fearful, I know there is no real danger. If there were real
danger, the Lord would flood my heart with the peace that passes all
All rights reserved
James W. Downing
2650 Stoneridge Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80919
Ph/fax 719 598 1461
E mail email@example.com
May be duplicated for entertainment or
educational purposes but not for commercial gain.
Copyright ©2000-2021 James W. Downing and USSWestVirginia.org. All rights reserved.