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Remember the Arizona
December 7th, 1941
The crisp air of yet another Sunday morning aboard the USS Arizona was a welcome one, as being below decks for most of the night deprived me of my liberty to fresh air. A weekly church service had been arranged for later on in the day, at noon, which was relatively far away, seeing as how it only 7:30 am at the time. Most of my shipmates wouldn’t even be up for at least another two hours or so, which is the main reason why I was awake so early to begin with. Every morning aboard the battleship, since I was first assigned to her seven months ago, I’ve found comfort staring over the bow of the ship into the murky waters below. The continual crashing of waves into the front of this iron warrior soothed my mind significantly, and due to the fact that most of the men weren’t even up and about yet, it was relatively quiet as well.
A petty officer aboard the Arizona, my excellent behavior and good conduct saw me rise in the ranking structure of our battleship. This success has landed me in the gunners seat of one of the two 7.62 mm (.30 cal) machine guns outfitted on our vessel. My quick reflexes and excellent eye sight enabled my superiors to easily appoint me to the position, and I eagerly awaited the opportunity to pay them back for their kindness. But little did I know at the time, my chance to do battle with the enemy was to come sooner than I had actually hoped.
A steady breeze sprayed me with the mist of the Pacific Ocean, and battleship row was a sight to be remembered. American battleships, cruisers and mine sweepers alike nestled close to Ford Island, just one of the many bases in service for the US Air Force. There was an overwhelming sense of safety which came from being around such a vast amount of fire power, and this led my comrades and I to feel as if this was more or less of a vacation rather than an actual combat assignment. Although the British and their Allies were fighting hard to push Hitler and his troops back into German, the feat seemed unobtainable in my eyes, and the war was one of the last things on my mind. “We aren’t in the war, so we’re safe…. Nothing to worry about at all.” The thoughts comforted me momentarily, but that was all about to change soon…
Back home in Washington D.C., I had worked as a mail delivery boy. I was able to get to know my community well through this occupation, and it had turned me into a real social person. Before working in the postal industry, I probably wouldn’t have talked to anyone unless I was approached first. Nowadays, people are happy for a moment of silence around me. Ironically, however, all was quiet on the bow of the ship, even with me in attendance. “Hold on.” A steady drone was being emitted into the air, and I turned to face the mouth of the harbor, and noticed a large flight of aircraft headed our way. “D*mn Air Force pilots…. It’s Sunday for Christ sake…. Don’t they know when to give it a rest?”
I gazed admirably at the formation of aircraft, as I noticed three different levels of flight. There was a lower level of aircraft, with one slightly above and another at a very high altitude. Nearby, what appeared to be a fighter escort swooped around the flight of airplanes. “But why on Earth would they make a training flight so… realistic?” Whatever the case, I just wished for a few more moments of peace and quiet, and stared back down to the waters below.
After a minute or so, the flight of airplanes was almost right on top of us, and my heart felt as if it had stopped beating in my chest. A rising sun was painted on the wings of the aircraft, and I realized that the sounds of their engines weren’t the customary American fighters or bombers which I was used to. “Those markings… Those aren’t American… They’re Japs!” Almost instantly, an explosion rocked the side of our number 4 main gun turret, near the stern of the battleship. At 8:00 am, the battle sirens of the USS Arizona sounded, and my comrades and I, caught by complete surprise, scrambled to save the lives of not only ourselves and each other, but that of our vessel’s as well.
My 7.62 mm machine gun was located on the stern of the Arizona, quite close to where the initial bomb blast actually occurred, and I raced to my post amongst the chaos. Men were running out of their barracks onto the deck, some only in their undergarments, and a droning voice on the loud speaker of the ship repeated in a monotone, “Man your battle stations men! We are under attack! This is not a drill!”
Upon my arrival at my battle station, I noticed a large gaping hole next to turret number 4, and knew that this had been the point of impact of the first bomb. I was surprised to see that not much damage was inflicted into the ship, and although there had been a small fire that was quickly extinguished, it was a relatively minor setback in reality.
“Petty officer Clark! I’ve locked and loaded the .30 cal! It’s good to go!” My gun’s loader, Seamen McFall, informed me that my weapon was ready fire, and I wasted no time getting to work. Explosions ripped through our sister ships, and smoke billowed into the sky as the Japs cowardly attacked us in total bewilderment. I fired wildly at each and every enemy plane I could lay my sights on, but after a few seconds of rage, my training kicked in, and I zeroed in on one steady target. It was a low-level bomber, and its course told me that it intended to make a run at the Arizona.
The .30 cal chattered as I unleashed a hail of bullets onto the enemy aircraft, and for a split second, I thought I had him. Smoke began to pour out of his tail and left wing, and I knew that I had scored a critical hit on him. However, despite the wounds, the torpedo bomber continued to progress towards us, and was getting too close for my own comfort. It was aiming straight for the bow of our ship, between the number one and two gun turrets. I had to check my fire before shooting, as I didn’t want stray bullets to hit friendlies aboard other vessels, since our proximity was very close to one another.
The Jap was unrelenting, and I could see that it would be difficult to stop him. I continued to spray his flight path with bullets, and although I continued to gain hits on his aircraft, the pilot would not give in, and there was to be no stopping him. Finally his bomb bay doors opened, and his payload dropped straight into the armoured deck of our ship, impacting directly between the two forward turrets. A large explosion rocked our vessel, and I was thrown to the deck. “The ammunition magazine…. They hit the ammo.” It was 8:06 am. The bow portion of the ship was ripped to pieces and in flames, the entire front of the Arizona a charred wreck. “All is lost…. We can’t win now…. We’re going down.”
“Abandon ship! Abandon ship!” The familiar voice sounded over what was left of the ship’s loudspeakers, and the few remaining men on the deck of the ship began to plunge into the chilling waters below. “There probably aren’t even enough men on the decks to man the guns…. The others are trapped below decks… We have to help them!”
“McFall!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, calling my loader to my side.
“We have to get off of the ship Brandon!” Danny McFall was only a young 18 year old, and I could see the fear in his eyes.
“We have to try and help our shipmates below deck get out!” I knew that most, if not all of them in the bow of the ship were already dead, but knew that those in the stern still had a fighting chance. The stern of the Arizona was beginning to list, with the middle already submerged in the waves.
“Aye P.O. Clark!” Although the kid was scared, he stood by my side, ready to risk his life for others. I nodded my head to him in approval, and we raced up the deck to the living quarter’s entrance. Our trek was more of an uphill marathon than anything, as the ship’s rear continued to list. It seemed to be rising vertically, and the bubbling water below was a menacing site, with its mixture of oil, mean and twisted metal.
When we finally reached the door we found it sealed shut, and the calls of seamen on the other side of the entrance echoed in the air. “We’re going to try and open the door! Push from the inside to help us out!” I instructed the trapped men on our plan, and they thankfully agreed, shouting acknowledgements through the door. “Let’s do this McFall!”
“Aye Clark!” With that, we grasped the circular clamp that acted as the doorknob to the entrance, and began to turn it to the right. It wouldn’t budge.
All the while we desperately tried and tried to crank the door open, bullets whizzed every which way around our dying ship, with shots ricocheting around the metal work and explosions from other vessels sending debris flying in erratic patterns as well. The deck was becoming slippery with our increased proximity to the waves below, and as we began to lose our footing, I knew that we were running out of time.
A voice from the inside shouted loudly, and all hope for the men was lost. “This side of the door’s clamp is broken off… It won’t open.” My heart sunk in my chest, and I let go of the door, staring blankly to the tilting deck. Screams from inside the compartment pierced the air, as their cries sounded in my mind. “The waters rising... We won’t make it…. We’ll see the Japs in H*ll boys!” Then, all was silent in a matter of seconds, and I knew that the rising water had drowned the men. The watertight door prevented the water from escaping from the compartment, and I blankly stared from the door to McFall. “They’re dead… Every single one of them… Dead.”
“We’ve got to get in the water Brandon! It’s useless! We’ve got to get out of here!” The recruit’s voice rang in my ears as I came back to my senses. Explosions ripped through the air, and the sound of bullets and the screams of men was overwhelming. What was left of the ship was mostly submerged, and only a small section of the rear remained aloft.
“Let’s go!” With that, McFall and I raced to the ledge of the ship, hopped over the railing, and dived as far as possible from the ship. “The sinking of the ship will create a vortex near the epicenter of the sinking… we mustn’t get to close to it or we’ll be sucked in for sure.”
Splash, splash. I hit the cool water of the bay first, with McFall landing right beside me seconds later. Looking up at the point which we jumped from, I estimated that we had probably dropped 10 stories or so. “Are you a good swimmer?” McFall nodded his head, and I knew that he would be able to look after himself. I too, was an experienced swimmer, and didn’t have to fight too much to stay afloat. However, the water was mixed with patches of oil, undoubtedly from the various sinking ships, and as it began to cover my body, it became harder and harder to breathe.
The USS Arizona, the pride of the US Navy, was slowly sinking beneath the waves, and I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. My comrades had died without warning, and the cowardly actions of the Japs were all to be blamed. ‘We didn’t stand a chance…”
She eerily became submerged by the harbor, taking with her many of my trapped brothers. Bombs continued to explode around me, as other ships that somehow managed to stay afloat desperately tried to evade the deadly fate which my shipmates and I had already endured. Japanese planes swooped over us back and forth, and I prayed that we’d make it out of this alive.
I looked to my right, desperately trying to keep my head above the water, and called to McFall. “Stay strong kid. We’ll get out of here soon.”
“Aye Brandon…. Aye.” It was visible to me that he was losing a lot of energy trying to stay afloat, but there was nothing that I could do to help him. Neither of us had strapped on life vests during the attack either, so it was left to our own strength to keep us alive. “We’re all at the mercy of God now…”
Amidst all the chaos of battle, I was able to make out a deep drone, which appeared to be coming right at us. I looked up to see a Japanese Zero, in what appeared to be a strafing run, moving in our direction. “No…. They wouldn’t dare do that… They’d slaughter us all.” Although I hoped for the best, I expected the worst, and unfortunately for us, the worst is what occurred on that dark day.
The Zero’s machine guns opened up on us, sending bullets into the depths of the harbor. Water splashed all around, and men were hit by the dozens. Screams of panic and pain filled the air, and we couldn’t believe that they’d resort to slaughtering us all like this. “We’re helpless…”
The Jap finished his strafing run, and turned into yet another pattern. “I’m not going down that easily.” An M1 Garand rifle was floating by me as I reached out and picked it up. “The water might have made it jam.” I aimed into the air and squeezed the trigger, and to my surprise, a bullet cracked out of the barrel. “It works.” I then aimed the 8 shot semi-automatic rifle at the oncoming fighter, and fired away. “Only seven shots left, presumably. Make them count.”
Crack. Crack. The bullets glanced harmlessly over the armour of the Zero, and I decided to change my tactics. “I won’t blow him up…. I’ll just immobilize him.” I aimed for his propeller, and fired a volley of four shots in the general area. The third and fourth bullets of this volley found their targets, as smoke began to leak out of the engine cowling.
“Yeah!” McFall cheered as the Jap’s engine smoked.
“D*mn Japs! Take that you cowards!” The shouts came from all around as men appreciated my effort.
“Just one more shot left.” Although the Zero continued its course straight at me, I didn’t seem to mind as I readied myself to hit the plane with one last shot. However, this was not meant to be. The Jap squeezed the trigger first, and machine gun bullets hit the water in a straight on path right at me. Metal projectiles pierced my body, and the rifle fell from my hands. Most men screamed when they were hit, or flailed their arms, but I just looked up. I looked up to the heavens, hoping that that was to be where I’d end up after my eyes closed.
The life began to drain from my limp 23 year-old body, as I sunk beneath the waves. Other falling bodies accompanied me on my trip down to the bottom of the harbour, and as my eyes shut around me, I put together one last grin on my face. “So there was a war going on after all.”
Of the 1,400 men aboard the USS Arizona at the time of the attack, 1,177 of them perished by her side.
On that condemned day, 2,350 Americans, including 68 civilians, fell to the guns and bombs of the Imperial Navy of Japan.
The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt stated while addressing the nation, that December 7th, 1941, was “a date which will live in infamy.” He also declared war on Japan during that address as well.
The American people rallied behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, and let their giant war machine loose. Japan did indeed pay for this attack, as they surrendered to the Allies on September 2nd, 1945.