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Ernie's House of Whoopass! December 7, 2011
December 7, 2011

Remember Pearl Harbor.

Art Wells - U.S. Marine, Private First Class, 19 Years old, Battle Station: Secondary Aft, high on the mainmast, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38)

The huge red ball blossoming under the plane's wing filled the porthole on U.S.S. Pennsylvania, as the fighter banked and climbed for altitude. The plane had just completed a strafing run on Ford Island, located in the middle of Pearl Harbor. I didn't need for anyone to remind me that it was an unfriendly, because I recognized it as a Jap Zero. As the striker for Corporal Thomas N. Barron, Marine Detachment Clerk, I usually caught Sunday morning duty for turning in the detachment's daily report to the ship's office prior to 0800. I had just dropped it off and stopped for a bull session with a deck division friend when the sound of explosions reverberated through the ship. We laughed at a nearby sailor's remark, "That's just like the Army to wait until Sunday to hold gunnery practice." But we rushed to a porthole when another sailor yelled, "The Japs are attacking!"

The pace had been leisurely on the ships in Pearl Harbor, the 7th of December, 1941, because Sunday was the day for rest and relaxation after the usual weekly few days at sea where the crews practiced day and night for war. Some men were still ashore; some of those aboard were still feeling the effects of a night out in Honolulu; and others were writing letters, pressing uniforms, shining shoes, straightening wall-locker gear, or rapping in bull sessions. With the surprise and suddenness of the attack some would die with a shoe still in hand, or with thoughts of how to word the next sentence in a letter, or with mouths open as they began the next sea story -their war had ended before it had officially begun! I turned from the porthole and raced aft, heading for my battlestation high on the mainmast-I was the pointer on the director controlling the port 5-inch .51-caliber broadside guns. As I dodged others racing to their stations, the expressions on faces registered shocked disbelief, anger and determination, and some had fear stamped indelibly into their paled and drawn features. The mouths of others spewed curses as they damned the Japs in almost a scream.

Though Marines usually didn't take their rifles to shipboard battlestations I instinctively thought of my "best friend." As I sped through the Marine Compartment, I noticed Sgt. Bud Tinker standing near the weapons locker and I slowed to ask whether I could get my rifle. He didn't have a key so I resumed my sprint aft. I had to climb a ladder up the outside of the most starboard leg of the mainmast's tripod to get to my battlestation. Countless times up and down it in practice had given me the agility and confidence of a monkey. As I sped upward, I rammed my head against the ass of a sailor climbing above me, just below the searchlight platform. I fumed while the clumsy overweight man dragged his bulky body, at what seemed like a snail's pace, the rest of the way to the platform. He spun to face me, "What the hell's the idea of running into me?" he demanded. "Get your fat ass out of my way!" I retorted. He didn't make a comeback but stepped aside, and I resumed my trip. After reaching my station, I helped the men already there lower the storm windows into recesses. I uncovered the gun director, donned a soundpower phone headset, and made checks with the captains of the five-port side broadside guns. The 5-inch .51-caliber guns were not designed for use against aircraft so the director and gun crews could do nothing but watch harbor activities. So 2dLt. Leyton M. Rogers, the Marine officer commanding the director station, ordered all phones secured except for one to the ship's gunnery control.

As a 19-year old, I didn't want to miss anything and my eyes darted about the harbor trying to keep tabs on every Jap plane, every bomb and torpedo, and every ship. My attention switched back and forth from Ford Island to Battleship Row, and to Helena and Oglala berthed in the Pennsylvania's regular 10-10 Dock berth, with Oglala outboard of Helena. The "Pennsy," as Flagship of the Pacific Fleet, usually enjoyed the choice berth because Admiral Husband E. Kimmel wasn't about to ride his barge across channel whenever he wanted to board or debark from his flagship. But now Pennsylvania was in Number-1 Drydock with screws off, just forward of her usual 10-10 berth. Battleship Row was across the channel and I had an unobstructed and relatively closeup view of it by looking across Pennsylvania's starboard quarter. I didn't think of the dangers caused by strafing Jap planes, or of low-level American small-caliber fire, or of a 5" AA gun's projectile hitting the mast when it was fired at low-flying planes. I was so engrossed in watching events across the channel that I didn't notice when three planes strafed Pennsylvania's port side at about 0805. The gun director crews were supposed to huddle between the tripod's legs running up through the station during strafing attacks but I leaned out a window for a better view of low-flying planes or flights passing over at higher altitude. Twice, Lieutenant Rogers grasped my belt and pulled me inboard. Even though he reminded me to stay between the legs, I would become engrossed in following the action and ease back to an opening.

With the ship shuddering from the constant concussions caused by the firing of her 5" and 3" guns, and the explosions of bombs and torpedoes in the harbor, I didn't consciously feel, hear, or see the gigantic explosion that demolished Arizona. Only minutes after the attack had begun, the dreadnought turned into a mass of twisted, torn and fire-scorched steel. I didn't pay much attention to activities around California, or the tanker Neosho directly across the harbor, or Ford Island. My concentration focused on Oklahoma and West Virginia as torpedoes ripped again and again into their bowels. Oklahoma's masts appeared to be moving closer and I realized she was listing heavily to port. Then I watched in awe as she continued turning-so fast her masts splashed the water-until her keel was exposed to the dimmed light of a smoke-shielded sun. When she rolled I could see men spilling off her decks into the water to port and others frantically scrambling over her hull to starboard. I was in a quandary as I debated with myself whether I should salute. To me the ship was dying in shame and I didn't feel she rated a salute, but I wanted to pay respects to the many men who were dying with her. By the time I'd firmed my decision, she had capsized so I snapped a quick, but reverent, salute. As Oklahoma rolled, a float-equipped scout plane slid off the aft-turret catapult and floated into the burning oil at the channel side of the ship. My attention switched to West Virginia and other activities so I didn't watch the plane's final fate but it must have burned and sank.

I watched while torpedo planes continued attacking West Virginia. In what seemed only a matter of seconds after a plane dropped a torpedo, a plume of water spouted at the outboard side of the ship ... she appeared to rise, shudder, and then settle back even lower in the water than she had been before as the explosions tore out her bowels. How could anything possibly penetrate a battleship's thick armor I had wondered ... that it could be done was being demonstrated to me in a most dramatic and definite way! The Jap planes were below my height when they dropped low to lay their deadly cargoes into the water, as they made torpedo runs on Helena and Oglala. I could see the cockpit instruments and the expressions on the pilots' faces. The white of their teeth flashed as they grimaced with concentration or grinned in exultation at the success of their missions. Then as the planes banked and climbed for altitude, I was almost eyeball-to-eyeball with the rear gunners as they looked down their gun sights and sprayed deadly bullets over the topsides of the ships. How I wished for my rifle! My eyes focused on a plane struggling to gain altitude after attacking Ford Island. Flames and smoke streamed out behind it. Then it slipped off to the left and glided to a crash on or near the Navy yard hospital grounds- it was the only plane I saw shot down during the attack!

A flight of five planes flew over Pennsylvania at high altitude and the ship's AA guns concentrated on them. I fumed with frustration as I saw the shells bursting below the planes or, judging from the volume of fire, not even exploding. The planes continued serenely on their way and disappeared unscathed over the billowing smoke hovering above the harbor. The sight of them added to the frustration of watching torpedo and bomber planes dropping their instruments of destruction, then escaping apparently undamaged into the billowing smoke. Approximately 30-minutes after the attack began, orders were passed for the director crew to clear the mainmast and go below. I dropped down the tripod leg ladder, grasping the handrails loosely and tightening my grip occasionally to control my speedy descent ... my feet were catching every third or fourth rung! I ran to the boat deck and joined a line of sailors and Marines passing ammunition to a 5" .25-caliber AA gun-I felt better now that I was helping to fight Japs. As I cradled each projectile against my chest, I prayed that it would knock an enemy plane from the air. Odd thoughts can enter one's mind at unexpected moments: grease from the ammo was smearing my white skivvy shirt and I directed extra curses at the Japs for that!

So many men were lending a hand on the boat deck that they were getting in each other's way. It also exposed more than necessary to strafing planes so all Marines were ordered below. But I didn't want to sit in the Marine Compartment with nothing to do, unable to keep tabs on harbor activity, so I went to Number-7 Casemate. It and -9 were starboard side and the 5" broadside guns in them were manned by Marines, as were Number-8 and -10 on the port side. Again, I had nothing to do but observe-and talk. Sgt. R. L. Taylor and I were standing in the center of the casemate talking when a Marine sitting in the gun's pointer seat yelled, exultantly, "A battleship is going out!" I rushed to the casemate opening and saw Nevada emerging almost like a ghost from the thick smoke ... slowing making her way by Battleship Row and heading toward the harbor's entrance. A swarm of Japanese planes darted through the air above her and bombs were exploding in the water alongside and on her decks. When one exploded in the water just off her starboard bow and near a sailor coiling rope on the fo'c'sle, he dropped the rope and streaked aft. It appeared that his upper body was lagging behind his churning legs, because he ran leaning back and the back of his head appeared to be almost between his shoulder blades. I sensed his desperation and empathized with him but in other circumstances it would have been hilarious! His timing was poor, however, because when he reached about amidships on the port side, a bomb hit Nevada in that area. Debris spurted high into the air, including a cotton bunk mattress. I envisioned a genie sitting on a Persian rug as the mattress soared high above the ship and then fluttered and yawed as it dropped to the water. I've always wondered whether the sailor was wounded or killed by that bomb.

I felt pride as I watched the gallant old battlewagon slowly, determinedly, and majestically, fighting her way through rising geysers of water, shrugging off multiple bomb hits, with her guns defiantly spitting flames and projectiles at the darting planes swarming like bees above her while striving desperately to stop her. The old ship fighting her way down harbor was the most inspiring sight I saw during the entire war! I wouldn't learn of Nevada's fate until later, because Pennsylvania's PA system blared: "A strafing attack is coming. Take cover!" Sergeant Taylor yelled, "Get inboard!" And I ducked into the passageway connecting the two casemates. He joined me by the guns' ammunition hoist and we resumed our conversation. Then I was fighting for consciousness and it was like trying to climb out of an inky-black abyss. During those moments that I was aware of my surroundings the pile of men on the deck of Number-7 casemate felt like a nest of squirming worms as they struggled to untangle. As I'd gain consciousness for a moment, I could feel the crushing weight from above and the warmth and softness of wriggling bodies beneath me. Suddenly, the weight was gone and I felt someone tugging at the back of my skivvy shirt, pulling me off the pile. He helped me to stand.

At 0906, a bomb had penetrated the deck of the boat deck and had apparently hit the base of the broadside gun in Number-9 Casemate before rolling over on the deck and exploding. The blast had funneled through the connecting passageway hurling men like projectiles against the wall- lockers attached to the forward bulkhead of Number-7. I glanced toward the casemate opening and saw Sergeant Taylor standing nearby. His face was blackened but he acted uninjured, even though he had been between me and the exploding bomb. "Sickbay! Main deck forward!" he yelled. Feeling woozy and rudderless, I grasped the back of a Marine's skivvy shirt and followed him down the ladder to the Marine Compartment located below the casemates. After stumbling over a stretcher in the compartment and learning that the man in it, PFC Nelson R. Holman, had a broken leg, my next awareness was of standing just inside the sickbay. My eyes roved over it ... taking in the sparkling white bulkheads, the white bunk coverings and the compartment's clean-as-a-new-pin look. Even the terra-cotta color battleship linoleum covering the deck looked immaculate to me ... except for a huge pool of blood on the deck by the bunk nearest the entrance. But there wasn't any blood on the bunk! Later, someone told me that a close buddy had lain there and his life had flowed out with that pool of red. Shrapnel had taken a huge chunk out of his back and nothing could be done to save him.

I didn't see a single man ... dead or alive. The sickbay was completely empty! It was quiet, peaceful, and a haven from the carnage I had witnessed topside. But I felt deserted because those who could tend to my needs had disappeared. In doubt as to what to do and unable to make a rational decision, I ambled aft to a compartment where mess tables had been setup for morning chow. Dishes, food, tables, and silverware were helter-skelter on the deck. A sailor was standing in the compartment and I asked him if he knew where sickbay had been moved. He didn't know. Another sailor entered the compartment and the sailor with me asked him. He informed us that it had been moved to second deck and forward by Number-1 turret's barbette. I made my way to it and saw many wounded men laying in bunks lining the passageways and sitting or laying on the deck. I felt very weak and eased myself to the deck and leaned back against the barbette. I didn't see any doctors but several corpsmen were busily attending to wounded men. After leaning against the barbette for several minutes with my eyes closed, I sensed the approach of a corpsman and opened them. He squatted beside me and inquired about my injuries, then asked, "Can you stand up?" I didn't realize that my khaki pants were blood soaked. After I pushed myself to my feet, he didn't wait for me to drop my pants but began slitting up the left leg with a scalpel. The higher he slit while searching for the source of the blood, the more worried I became that the worst had happened and vowed: "If they got my nuts, I'll kill everyone of the little bastards!" Fortunately, the shrapnel wound was in my upper thigh, just below the buttock. He hastily bandaged it and moved on to another man.

Remembering a few empty bunks, tiered three high, when I entered the temporary sickbay I headed for a clean-looking center bunk. A young sailor manning a soundpower phone nearby remarked in a reproving tone of voice, "I put clean coverings on just this morning. You'll get them bloody." I stared at him with a "Tough! You just try to keep me out of it" look. As I eased into the bunk he didn't make any more remarks. A doctor dressed in civilian clothes entered the sickbay, quite some time later, and began checking wounded men. He worked his way around the barbette and upon reaching my bunk, questioned, "Marine, what happened to you?" "Shrapnel in the leg and a knock on the head, sir," I replied. He checked the corpsman's bandaging job. Then, without checking my head or asking how I felt, he said, "You can return to your station." I crawled out of the bunk and started around the barbette. But, after a few steps, I felt vomit beginning to rise and dashed for a tin mop bucket setting nearby on the deck. After I had finished, the doctor ordered me back into the bunk. As I didn't feel up to going any place under my own power, I crawled back into it. A short time later, sailors dashed into the compartment and grabbed all of the fire extinguishers. Their actions caused PFC Tommie J. Dale, in a bunk across the passageway, and I to worry that Pennsylvania was afire. We began discussing the best and fastest way to abandon ship.

Two destroyers, Cassin and Downes, were in the drydock with the Pennsylvania. They were beam-to-beam forward of the battleship. Private First Class Dale and I didn't know that the destroyers had been hit by bombs and were burning. The heat from their fires was bubbling the paint inside Pennsylvania's bow. Some time later, the ship's crew began transferring men from the sickbay to the nearby naval hospital. A bullet had torn off part of Dale's heel and he was suffering severely. When men started to take me out first I requested that they take him because of his pain. At that time my head and the shrapnel wound were not hurting. Later, two very-young sailors brought a stretcher to my bunk. They stood by it discussing how they could manage to get me out of the bunk and onto the stretcher. I'd remember it with amusement later, because I solved their problem. I told them to wait a minute and crawled out of the bunk and lay down on the stretcher. They carried me aft but stopped when they reached the first ladder going up to the main deck. They set the stretcher on the deck, and for several minutes discussed how to get me up the ladder. Again, I suggested they wait a minute and got off the stretcher, climbed the ladder, and they folded the stretcher and brought it up. I laid back down on it and they carried me to the quarterdeck. As we neared the head of the gangway to 10-10 Dock, the ship's PA system blared: "A stretcher is needed for a severely wounded man!" and gave the location. "Leave me here and go get him," I suggested to the sailors. "I'll be okay." They stopped. I got off the stretcher and sat on a nearby bit.

While I sat in the warm sun waiting for the sailors to return, I wasn't conscious of any guns firing. Number-3 and -4 turrets blocked my view of Battleship Row, but I noticed that Helena was still afloat at 10-10 Dock. I also noticed a navy officer, a sailor, and Marine were standing at the head of the gangway. Though my head felt like it was detached and floating several feet above the deck watching what went on below, I still was mentally alert enough to know that the Japs had made a shambles of Pearl Harbor. I wondered how much damage had been done to the Pennsylvania. But I was too dazed to give much thought to future happenings. Feeling very tired I considered laying down on the teakwood deck but resisted the urge. Floating in and out of awareness I didn't know whether the severely wounded man was carried off via way of the quarterdeck gangway. Curious about him I wondered if another gangway had been put in place forward. After awhile, I began to worry that the sailors had forgotten me. But, eventually, they returned and carried me to the dock. They laid me on a cotton mattress in the bed of a civilian pickup truck. The driver headed for the hospital at breakneck speed. When the truck hit a bump in the road it bounced me into the air above the mattress. The pickup had a 2 x 6 board bolted across the top of its bed. Mesmerized, I stared fixedly at the board and began worrying that a large bump would throw me into it. The driver apparently didn't realize that the rough ride could do more damage than lack of speed in getting me to the hospital. Even though I was still woozy from the bomb blast, it was an unforgettable ride.

When we arrived at the hospital the attendants moved me to another mattress, laying on the deck just inside the entrance. Private First Class Dale was on one of the nearby mattresses. Once more, the stretcher bearers started to give me priority and I again suggested that they take him first. He thanked me and they took him away. It was the last time I'd ever see him. Eventually I was taken into a ward and put to bed. After a quick check by ward medical personnel and a morphine shot, I drifted into an untroubled sleep. I awakened after dark to the sound of guns firing in the harbor area. Later, I learned that a flight of six Enterprise planes had been coming in for a landing on Ford Island and four were shot down by friendly forces. After the guns quit firing, the only sounds to be heard in the darkness were the muted voices of medical personnel and the moans of the wounded. [read more]

The USS Arizona Memorial, located at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, marks the resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors killed on the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 by Japanese imperial forces and commemorates the events of that day. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the island of O'ahu was the action that led to United States involvement in World War II. The memorial, dedicated in 1962, is visited by more than one million people annually. Accessible only by boat, it straddles the sunken hull of the battleship without touching it. Historical information about the attack, shuttle boats to and from the memorial, and general visitor services are available at the associated USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center, opened in 1980 and operated by the National Park Service. The sunken remains of the battleship were declared a National Historic Landmark on 5 May 1989. In 1999, the battleship USS Missouri was moved to Pearl Harbor from the United States west coast and docked near, and perpendicular to, the USS Arizona Memorial (parallel to the Arizona). Upon the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the Japanese surrendered to United States General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz, ending World War II. The pairing of the two ships became an evocative symbol of the beginning and end of the United States' participation in the war.

Today there are less than 5,000 survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack still living. Many people have compared the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, and this comparison is not without merit. Both were sneak attacks against us on our own soil, both were unexpected and unwarranted, and both caused innocent bloodshed. Just as our generation cannot imagine ever forgetting 9/11, neither can the men and women who were alive imagine forgetting Pearl Harbor. Just as we will expect our children and our children's children to learn the history and honor the victims of 9/11, we too should continue to honor the men and women affected by Pearl Harbor.

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