At the beginning of the attack. If you look closely,
you can see, in the water, torpedo tracks and concussion rings.
--U.S. National Archives
"For me, the most remarkable aspect of that terrible day
was how quickly those young men cycled from the boredom of peacetime
to heroism in the face of the most violent, most frightening day of their lives.
Japanese pilots repeatedly marveled at how quickly the Americans fought back."
--Ralph F. Couey
Frmr Chief Petty Officer
United States Navy
Copyright © 2018
By Ralph F. Couey
If you go there today, you will be impressed by the quiet beauty of the place. The bright sunlight, the dancing waters, the fresh breeze all combine to provide a sense of peace and serenity. Looking over towards Bravo Piers, I can see the gray shapes of modern warships apparently sitting quietly pierside, although I know better. Aboard those ships, the crews are busily engaged in the myriad of tasks and projects necessary to the operation, preservation, and preparation of a Navy ship. It is always a busy day, often a long one. Concentrating on the work, they can forget the larger purpose of exactly why they wear the uniform
Seventy-seven years ago, there was another day like this one. It was a Sunday, which meant that those sailors who didn't have the duty were sleeping in or just rousing themselves, planning how to spend their day in more delightful pursuits than chipping paint. The off-going duty section was busily engaged in the routine morning work of preparing to turn the ship over to the oncoming duty section, who had just finished breakfast and were gathering at muster stations. On all ships, the watchstanders were preparing to execute the daily flag-raising ceremony we all knew as "morning colors." On the Battleships, a full band was mustered on the fantail, ready for a rousing rendition of the National Anthem. Nowhere could be found any hint or suspicion that anything but a peaceful Sunday lay ahead.
Around 7:55 a.m., (0755, in Naval parlance), planes began overflying the moored ships. Some began strafing runs and to everyone's shock, a bomb was dropped on Ford Island. Even at that point, observers were convinced that this was a very realistic drill laid on by the Navy or the Army. At some point, an invisible switch was thrown in their hearts and minds, and they realized with shock what was upon them.
Commander Logan Ramsey of Patrol Wing 2 ordered his radiomen to immediately send out the uncoded message that shook America to its very core:
"AIR RAID, PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NO DRILL."
The first 20 minutes of the attack were, in many ways the most destructive phase. In that short space of time, three battleships were torpedoed and USS ARIZONA had been blown in half. Across the island, action was breaking out at air bases at Kaneohe, Barbers Point, Hickam, Wheeler, and Ford Island. In a shockingly short period of time, the modern aircraft whose job it was to defend O'ahu lay for the most part in piles of burning junk. Hundreds were already dead or soon would be. USS OKLAHOMA had rolled over, trapping hundreds below decks.
It would be perfectly understandable if we read about those servicemen diving for cover and trying to hide. But that is not what happened. These young men, most of them in their late teens and early twenties, ran to their battle stations. Ammunition stored in locked boxes were hacked into and bullets distributed to the waiting guns. Japanese pilots were amazed at how quickly the black bursts of anti-aircraft fire began to fill the skies. One noted that if the reverse had occurred, he doubted that Japanese sailors would have responded as quickly.
But that heroism went beyond grabbing guns. On every stricken ship, there were acts of incredibly selfless bravery and valor. Aboard the USS CALIFORNIA, Petty Officer First Class Robert Scott manned his station in the air compressor compartment. Compressed air is vital to the safe operation of Navy guns because after every shot, hot air and ash is blown out of the barrels. If this were not done, the serving crews would be incinerated by opening the breech to load the next round. After multiple torpedo hits to his beloved battleship, water began pouring into the compartment. Coolly, he sent the men for whom he was responsible out of the compartment, saying, "This is my station and I will stay and give them air as long as the guns are going." Petty Officer Scott, 26 years old, paid the ultimate price.
Ensign Francis Flattery as his ship, the OKLAHOMA began to roll over, remained in a gun turret holding a battle lantern so his men could escape. Ensign Flattery died at his post. SN James R. Ward did the same for his shipmates in another turret. He also died at his post.
Chief Petty Officer Edwin J. Hill of the NEVADA, dove into the water and swam to the mooring quay, removed the lines holding the ship and then swam back. Later, supervising an anchoring crew on the foc'sle he was killed when the Japanese dropped a cluster of bombs trying to prevent the battleship from leaving port.
Also aboard the CALIFORNIA, Lt. Jackson Pharris and Chief Petty Officer Thomas J. Reeves organized parties of men to pass ammunition topside to the guns still firing. Both were overcome by smoke and fumes and after ordering their men out of those spaces, succumbed.
These were all relatively young men. Chief Reeves was the oldest, but despite their youth and utter lack of combat experience, they responded like veterans and set the standard for courage and devotion to duty that guides Navy sailors to this day.
I go to Pearl Harbor quite often, sometimes to the memorial, but mostly viewing it from the walking trail that circles most of the harbor. At some point on my route, I will stop and look towards those empty quays marked with the names of those ships, and wonder if I had been in that same situation, would I have been so brave.
One of the oft-repeated quotes that populates this blog is one by author William Gibson: "Time moves in one direction, memory in the other." It is a reminder that as the passage of time puts distance between us and the past, our remembrances will lose their immediacy and emotion. Also, knowing that for younger people who did not live through such events, it will never mean as much to them as it does to the rest of us. Memories of that terrible day we remember as 9/11 are also fading, and those children who were born in 2001 are now about to graduate high school. For them and those born after, that day will be viewed through the cold, dispassionate accounts of history.
There are only three survivors from the USS ARIZONA left, and perhaps only a few hundred survivors of the attack remain alive. As we lose them, we lose their memories, that vital personal perspective that gives life and meaning to the historical record. Here in Hawai'i, the attack is commemorated every year on December 7th. Almost nowhere else is the anniversary remembered.
Remembering Pearl Harbor is not about dragging race-based hate into the present. People don't start wars. Governments do, and the Army generals who were in de facto control of the Japanese government at that time bore full responsibility for the chain of destruction which they initiated. The Japanese people, told only what their government wanted them to know, had no way of knowing that any other truth existed. It is a cold reminder of how important it is for us as citizens of a representative republic to hold our leaders, of both political parties, responsible for the truth. Without the zealous oversight of the citizenry, politicians will lie, and will do so with ease and without conscience.
Americans are taught from birth to be independent and self-directed. Many are raised by their parents under the dictum than nothing will happen for you until you MAKE it happen for you. this was far more true for that generation that grew up during the depression and found themselves suddenly in a world war which none of them had asked for or anticipated. Nonetheless, those who were there at Pearl Harbor on that day, as well as those who were in the Philippines, Guam, Wake, and the other places that came under the Japanese guns responded with courage, in accordance with their training. There were acts of American heroism all across the Pacific in those dark days of 1941. and there would many more such acts in the following three years and nine months. There have also been many similar acts of valor in the wars we have fought since. It is part of that illusive thing we call the American Character. We will fight and die for each other, for our country, and for other people's freedom. It's how we roll.
But on a peaceful sunlit morning in 2018, I remember; I honor; I pay tribute to those who paid that price.
And I hope that the way I have led my life has been worthy of their sacrifice.