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Wallin, Homer N. Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal. (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1968): 297-327.

  • Theater of Operations--Pacific
Document Type
Wars & Conflicts
  • World War II 1939-1945
File Formats
Location of Archival Materials

Reports by Survivors of Pearl Harbor Attack

USS California 

Chief Yeoman, S. R. Miller wrote as follows:

At about 1030, December 7, 1941, after the USS California had been struck with torpedoes and bombs, a man reported to me on the Flag Bridge that be had just escaped from Central Station by the trunk leading into Flag Conn. This was reported to Ensign McGrath on the signal bridge. Stover, C.E., C.Q.M., Campbell (initials unknown), C.E.M., and I with Ensign McGrath entered Flag Conn to investigate We obtained a Line and lowered Ensign McGrath through the trunk to Central Station, which was then being flooded with fuel oil coming from vents and various other places. The oil fumes were so strong that we feared Ensign McGrath would be overcome with the fumes before the trapped men could be rescued. At this time the ship was burning fiercely and there was also danger of the ship turning over as it was listing badly. Ensign McGrath completed his investigation and returned up the trunk to Flag Conn and reported that these men were in a compartment under Central Station and might be rescued by cutting a hole through the deck of Central Station. He reported that the deck of Central Station would soon be flooded with oil and that when this occurred, it would be too late to cut the hole through the deck.

A cutting torch was quickly obtained and volunteers called for. The response of volunteers was so great among various men on the boat deck that most of them had to be returned to their stations fighting fires. Ensign McGrath, Campbell and the volunteer rescue party entered Central Station through the trunk and proceeded to cut an escape hole in the deck. Ensign McGrath and Campbell were both nearly overcome by fumes before the job was completed. The first who worked with the cutting torch was overcome by fumes and had to be replaced with another experienced man. During the time this hole was being cut, there was great danger of fire as the fuel oil was gradually working its way close to where the hole was being cut. In addition to this danger, there was danger of the ship turning over as it was straining the mooring lines badly. The hole in the deck was just cut in time before fuel oil flooded Central Station.

It is considered that Ensign McGrath, Campbell, and the several other men who assisted, accomplished saving the lives of these trapped men at great risk of their own, and therefore distinguished themselves in bravery and gallantry above and beyond the call of duty. 

Under the strain and shock of the attack, it is regretted that the names of the other enlisted men were not obtained. They acquitted themselves equally as well to the best traditions of the Naval Service.

Lieutenant Commander H. E. Bernstein wrote as follows:

I was aboard ship with the Head of Department duty sitting in my room half dressed, when the General Alarm was sounded. I ran immediately to the quarterdeck and observed two torpedo planes approaching the ship perpendicular to it at an altitude of less than one hundred feet and as I moved aft, saw two torpedoes dropped by these planes. I immediately gave orders that all ammunition be broken out and upon receiving the report that some ready boxes were locked, I gave orders that they be broken open.

The work of Commander Skillman in obtaining all available fire fighting equipment ashore was most commendable, as a very large supply including new extinguishers which were filled on the landing, arrived.

There was no sign of panic or fear displayed by any of the men on shore even when bombing planes were overhead and all continued in their work of supplying fire fighting equipment.

Electrician Linn wrote as follows:

At 0750 I left my room and went to the Warrant Officer's mess room for breakfast. I had just sat down when the word was passed "All hands to General Quarters." I heard a distant rumble, glanced out the port hole on the port side of the ship, and saw a black airplane with rising sun insignias. I immediately went to the main control room. Word was passed to set condition Zed, and about ten minutes later a torpedo hit. We started lighting off both engine rooms to get underway. About five minutes after the torpedo hit the steam pressure slowly dropped to zero. We received report that there was water in the fuel oil. Everything possible was being done to clear lines of salt water and get fuel oil. About 0830 we received another torpedo hit and shortly after a report came in that a bomb hit had set a large fire forward. The fire main pressure was boosted to well over 100 pounds.

Shortly after bomb hit we had steam pressure on one boiler and furnished ship with light and power from after engine room. Forward engine room had to abandon. After engine room reported main set ready to come in on line. Steam pressure again dropped to about 100 pounds. We held off putting in after main set because of low steam pressure. Orders came over J.V. phones to abandon ship. Abandon ship orders belayed. Report that hatch or port thrust buckling. Informed personnel to check logs and see that it was secure, before abandoning that area. About 1000 [a.m.] ordered to abandon ship which we did after dogging down [closing] all hatches. I checked motor rooms for personnel and found them clear of personnel and after dogging all hatches reported to topside.

The wounded were being taken off the ship and others were being brought to top side from third deck passage where they were overcome with fuel oil fumes. All hands returned back aboard to fight fire with aid of tugs from Navy Yard. Our attention was called to the fact that five men were trapped in the center shaft alley. The only possible way to save them was cutting through bulkhead in center motor room. The water was running in center motor room from vent trunk which leaked terribly. Water was up to main motor bearings when five men from center thrust were pulled out. These men were hurt in no way and required no medical attention. We started putting pumps in various holds and commenced pumping but the ship slowly settled at all times until it finally settled on bottom.

Ensign E. R. Blair, Jr. had these comments on machine gun ammunition:

I was in an undressed state in the forward bunk room when General Quarters sounded. The first torpedo struck as I left the bunkroom, quickly followed by the second. Zed was already set on the main deck hatches so that in order to get topside I opened the escape hatch. In the boat deck Ensign Canfield was acting as starboard battery officer and Ensign C. H. Hall as port battery officer so I rushed up to sky control to man a director. Both directors were inoperative. On the way to sky control I had noticed that machine guns number 1 and number 2 were firing but were short of ammunition. The ammunition that they were using was the 400 rounds of ready ammunition on that station.

I gathered a working party of about 10 men from the vicinity of 5 inch 51 caliber gun number 1 to bring up machine gun ammunition. We opened the amidships forecastle hatch which led to the shaft leading to the forward torpedo hold. We were under attack at the time but the men paid no heed to the enemy planes and worked quickly and eagerly. It was necessary to open five zed hatches including the armored deck hatch to get to the .50 caliber ammunition, but I believed that the need for the ammunition warranted the risk involved.

Because of the previous torpedo hits I knew that it would be impossible to get to the .50 caliber magazine via the third deck and the opening of a similar number of zed hatches would be involved. I broke out the belted ammunition, about 1600 rounds, distributed it among eight men, 200 rounds to a ready box, one ready box to a man. To each man I designated a station to which be was to take his ammunition. It was exceedingly hard going for these men to chink up the shaft with the ammunition. The ship was listing badly and they could use only one hand to chink the vertical ladders in the shaft. Every one of the men made it to the main deck. With the remaining men I commenced belting up new ammunition. Shortly, however, we were hit again. It felt exactly as the concussion of a 5 inch/51 caliber feels when you are sitting in the pointers seat. Two glass gauges broke and diesel oil ran out on the deck. I closed the valves and thought that glass gauges on a battleship should be done away with. There was a leak forward and we could hear water running close at hand. I was determined to get as much ammunition out as was possible and belt it above decks. Accordingly, including two men who were on watch there, each man went topside with all be could carry. A Gunners Mate remained with the men and I instructed him to bring the clipping machine with him. He had it half unfastened when I left. The clipping machine never reached topside. When I went back for it thirty minutes later the torpedo hole was completely flooded. 

From the magazine I headed for the main top, noting as I went that the main deck starboard side was a wreck; men were crawling out of the starboard forecastle hatch in a dazed condition, some badly burned. There was a neat bomb hole near 5 inch/51 caliber gun three with smoke trickling out. There was no ammunition in the maintop. I retraced my steps. On the main deck near the forecastle hatch amidst smoke and debris was the ammunition scattered over the deck with a dead man beside each ready box. Two ready boxes that could be gotten to (there was fire all around) I sent to guns numbered 1 and 2. I returned to the maintop hoping to find the clipping machine and the boxes of loose ammunition brought out last from the magazine. Two boxes were brought up by exhausted seamen, one of which was Shelton, S1c, 6-S Div. We turned to belting the ammunition by hand. After belting about 100 rounds "Abandon Ship' was given. Reluctantly Ensign B. C. Hall and I left without firing our belt.

Machine guns #1 and #2 were manned immediately after the enemy dropped her first bombs on Ford Island. They fired at the first planes which attacked this ship. Gun number 2, however, which could bear on the torpedo planes attacking this ship, would fire only one round without being given "immediate action" or reloading by hand. This was due to a faulty setting of the oil buffer. Gun number 1 with Price, S2c, 6-Div. firing, is credited by all men at the guns, including Lieutenant (jg) Jakeman, with the feat of bringing down the plane which attacked immediately behind the plane which scored the bomb hit to starboard. The task of getting ammunition to the .50 caliber machine guns was one for the machine gunners themselves. That they didn't carry out their job was due principally to the fact that they were stopped by officers and put in the 5 inch/25 and 3 inch/30 ammunition supply lines where they did heroic work. Another reason was that Montgomery A.F., GM1c, who was in charge of the .50 caliber machine gun ammunition supply, had been temporarily detached for patrol duty ashore. The man next in charge after Montgomery, a GM3c did not have the experience to cope with the situation.

Machine Gunners who should be mentioned for their heroic work in ammunition supply line below decks and later in saving lives at the risk of their own were Bell, GM3c, Doran, S1c, Nix, S1c, and Cleveland, S1c, all of 6-P Division.

Ensign W. A. J. Lewis wrote as follows:

General Quarters was sounded and I proceeded at once to the Forward Engine Room. The room was fully manned within a few minutes and I, gave the order to set all condition on the Damage Control Fittings. We had just shifted, F.O.[Fuel Oil?] suction to the starboard battle tanker when we got the word from the oil king to make the shift. I checked the light and power machines and found them operating properly. I instructed the watch to watch all trips closely and if anything tripped out to reset it and hold it in if necessary. The first torpedo hit came just as I was reaching the engine room. It knocked out about one half of the lights in the machine shop and about one fourth of the lights in the engine room, No machinery was tripped or put out of commission by this hit. An inspection of the engine room showed that we had suffered no visible damage. I ordered a main feed pump put on the line along with both main fuel oil pumps. We had just started warming up the main plant when we got reports that #1 boiler was getting water in its fuel oil. Steam pressure dropped rapidly so we secured from warming up main set, secured main circulator, and steam fuel oil pumps.

After the second torpedo hit, we began to get large quantities of smoke down the ventilator blowers so we secured the ventilators. Smoke still came down and word was received that gas was present. We could detect nothing but powder gases so did not put on gas masks. Later on the smoke became thicker so I directed some of the men to put on their masks. They found a certain amount of relief by doing so; mainly I think because it took certain irritating particles out of the air and also because it protected the eyes. The smoke seemed to be coming now from burning paint rather than powder. The smoke began to take effect on the crew so I ordered all hands except the talker on the upper level to go down to the lower level where air was somewhat better. The forward part of the engine room had become very hot and the metal in some places was too hot to touch. This accounted for some of the paint fumes as the paint had begun to blister. When the order came to abandon ship, (we did not receive the first order) I directed the men to leave these stations and go up after hatch. They did so but for some reason they could not get the watertight door above the hatch open. We then tried to open the forward hatch but the metal in that area was so hot that it led us to believe that there was a big fire just above us. We got all the fire extinguishers in the engine room and all the extra clothes we could find to wrap around ourselves and began to try to force the forward hatch. At about this time we were assisted from above and the hatch was opened. The fire was just forward of us so we proceeded aft and came up on deck. By this time the ship had been abandoned but the crew was rapidly returning to fight the fire in the midships Section.

The conduct of the crew was excellent, There was no confusion and each man manned his station and obeyed orders without question or delay even at the time when all hands began to feel that we were going to be trapped below there was no hysteria or excitement.

The Acting Engineer Officer, Lieutenant C. A. Peterson wrote as follows:

I went to Main Control immediately when General Quarters was sounded. As soon as communications were manned I ordered the after steam lines warmed up, all boilers lighted off, and both main sets warmed up and made ready for getting underway. Reports that General Quarters was set were received from all engineering stations. Shortly thereafter a heavy shock was felt and a report was received that a torpedo had hit the ship. (These events all happened in very rapid succession, and I am not sure of the sequence. I believe that the torpedo hit before the reports of all stations had been received.) About ten minutes after the torpedo hit the steam pressure started dropping. Number 1 fireroom (which had been steaming for auxiliary) reported water in the fuel oil. The forward fuel oil suction was at this time, and had been for 10 or 15 minutes, on the starboard battle tanks. I ordered a shift to the starboard loop and called the oil king by phone for consultation. He informed me that he had tried the starboard battle tanks, starboard loop, and engine room bottoms, but had been unable to get any good oil. I ordered the forward auxiliary fuel oil pump stopped and the fuel oil loop opened all the way around in order to get fuel from an after suction to #1 fireroom. I ordered all forward firerooms to run the water from their burner connections to the bilges in order to clear the line of water, I also ordered all after firerooms to light off under natural draft using as many burners as possible. The after boilers reported that the oil was too cold to burn. I ordered them to keep trying and told emergency Boiler Control to get a blow torch to heat the oil in the burner line to one of the after boilers. The forward light and power machines had been tripped out and the steam pressure rapidly dropped to zero. About this time a second torpedo bit the ship. A report was received from port thrust block room that it was filling with water rapidly. Orders were given to abandon the station. After gyro reported a short time later that the hatch from port thrust was bulging and leaking and that station (after gyro) was ordered abandoned and secured. Prior to this it had been necessary to allow the Forward Torpedo Air Compressor crew and the Forward S. F. [Ship Fitters?] Air Compressor crew to abandon their stations due to heavy leakage of fuel oil into those spaces. Not long after the second torpedo bit, a bomb hit was reported in the machinery passageway. This turned out later to have been the bomb that exploded in A611s. The forward engine room reported that they were getting a great deal of smoke and had stopped their blowers, also that the bulkheads and overhead were getting hot. Fuel not having been regained on #1 fireroom, and since the fires had been successfully lighted in #6 boiler, I ordered the main steam cut outs in the after engine room closed to keep all the steam that we were about to get for the after main set and after light and power machines. The fuel oil loop had previously been isolated between the forward and after engineering spaces, as the large amount of water being forced out of the forward lines dropped the pressure aft. The forward auxiliary fuel oil pump was started again and continued effort was made to find good oil for the forward boilers. This had still not been accomplished when the engine room was abandoned. Number 6 boiler came in on the line and about five minutes later number 5 boiler came in on the line. The after light and power machines were started as soon as one boiler was on the line, and light and power were restored to the ship. Numbers 3 and 4 bilge pumps were put on the fire main. Shortly after this I got a call via ships service telephone from emergency boiler control and was asked, "Did you get the word in Main Control to abandon ship?" By this time the after engine room and some of the firerooms had gotten this word and started to abandon. I ordered them stopped while I verified this order. Conn said that no such order had been given. The men were ordered to return to their stations, and they did so with such speed that none of the operations which they had been engaged in were interfered with. That is, the boilers continued to steam and the light and power machines to run. Shortly after this the Chief Engineer came down to Main Control and assumed charge. The after main set was ready to roll and word was requested from Conn if it were intended to get underway. As I recall it the answer was in the negative. A short time later word was received from Conn to abandon ship. It was stated to be on the authority of Commander Battle Force. Orders were accordingly given to all stations which were abandoned in an orderly manner. Fires were cut in the steaming boilers and the light and power machines slowed down and stopped. All spaces leading from the engineering passageway were checked and found to be abandoned. All watertight doors were closed securely, and with the space abandoned the Chief Engineer and I came topside. When we got to the quay Captain Smith was directing everyone to, go back and fight the fire. After a slight confusion due to this conflicting order, the crew started fighting the fire in the casemates with buckets and portable fire extinguishers. From the time that #6 boiler came on the line until the engineering spaces were abandoned, the firemain pressure had been kept at 75 pounds or more continuously. The rapid stroke of the two pumps on the line (I could hear them) indicated that they were pumping large quantities of water.

Chief Electrician, R. W. Miller wrote as follows:

The morning of December 7, 1941, about 0750, while seated in the W.O. [Warrant Officer] mess room at breakfast, I heard an unusual rattle of machine gun fire and an explosion from the vicinity of the Navy Yard Dry Dock. The General Alarm sounded and I seemed to know without further thought that we had been attacked and that it was not just another drill. A quick glance out the port in the mess room verified this. There in full view and an easy target was a gray plane on an opposite course paralleling our heading at the mooring.

I ran to my room for my gas mask, etc. and then for the Central Station, my battle station. On reaching the ladder to the Central Station an explosion occurred seeming to come from forward; this I took to be a torpedo. Condition Zed was immediately set around the Central Station and plotting room area. Officers present in plot were Lieutenant Purdy, Ensign Relley and Ensign Joys and in Central Station Ensign Walker and myself. In short order we had communications established with what was available. Some excitement existed at the start but things soon quieted down to almost routine.

Upon arriving at Central I had the compasses started, made preparations to live up telegraphs, etc. for getting underway, and called the forward and after distribution switch boards to see how they were getting along and if everyone had reached his station. We seemed to be well manned and all had responded to the G.A.[General Alarm] instantly. About this time. 0810 or 0815, the ship had a port list. Chief Yeoman Baldwin acted as D.C.O.[Damage Control Officer] and ordered starboard voids to be flooded to counter our list. In about 10 more minutes there was a terrific explosion almost under our feet; we knew this to be a torpedo. The list increased and Baldwin continued to counter flood.

Word came into Central for power for the hoists to get up ammunition. I was asked if there wasn't some auxiliary power and told the ammunition the only auxiliary power was to use the hand hoisting gear. All lights were off but the auxiliary lights came on nicely. About this time word came in that the port lower 5 inch handling room was flooding. I left Central and went down to check to see if any more ammunition could be sent up before the boys abandoned this station. The water was about knee deep and pouring down the hoist. I ordered the handling room abandoned and had hoist flaps and the watertight door secured. The crew to this station went up to plot and we secured the trunk to the forward distribution room. Mr. Walker and myself were quite concerned with the list which by now was 8, checked with Baldwin frequently to see that all starboard voids were being flooded, and we were assured that they were. This concern was amplified by the fact that we had received a report that the Oklahoma was bottom side up.

Explosions were felt at intervals but no damage reports came in. The fire alarm annunciator dropped from the magazines and started dropping, indicating them to be either on fire or flooded and the bell rang incessantly. I ordered the fire alarm bell to be cut out to stop the noise. I called up the forward board and pleaded with Ensign Gavin to see if be could get us power and was informed that there was water in the fuel oil. I then called main control to find out if they couldn't use the steering batteries for power on the after distribution board. I called Ensign Gavin again to contact the engine room for power and was informed it would be on in a short while. About this time, 0830 or 0840, a crashing explosion just overhead and to the starboard side led me to believe that a 5 inch magazine had gone since the fire alarm drops had indicated them on fire or flooded.

All equipment seemed to hang together nicely especially the ship's service telephones. Anything that was secured held fine; only a few loose things flew around a bit.

The telephone cabinet doors jumped out a little and we were all jolted but no harm was done below. The overhead of Central Stations started to drip fuel oil and water and we knew that the deck above us was flooded. We put buckets under the leaks. Price, Chief Electrician's Mate, called me in the room to look at the leaks. I found the bulkhead between Main Radio and the IC [Internal Communications] room buckled and the frames bent with some water squirting through but it looked as though it would hold for awhile. Sweavey, CM 1C, at the after gyro called up and said the hatch to the port thrust was bulging and so I ordered him out and told him to secure the hatch to the third deck. Sweavey is missing and a fine boy be was. The list had decreased some to about 6½ degrees and then increased again. Word was received in Central that they were dropping thermite bombs. Lights and power came on in Central again around 0840 approximately. When the word to abandon ship came we left through the Conning Tower tube. Things on top were a mess. I got a life jacket and after reaching the float promptly, fell in the oil being temporarily blinded. A truck picked me up and carried me to the new BOQ where I received treatment for my eyes and some dry clothes.

Gunner's Mate, Third Class, V. O. Jensen wrote as follows:

During the air raid Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Robert Scott of the `A' Division was in waist deep water and fuel oil and refused to leave his station after we had gotten word to abandon our compartment. I called to him and told him everyone else had abandoned the compartment but he insisted on staying; `As long as I can give these people air, I'm sticking.' His station was on the Forward Air Compressor by Main G.S.K. Things were blacking out for me so I was forced to leave the compartment and I never saw him afterwards.

Ensign Champion wrote of a rescue party which freed five men from the Center thrust Block Room.

After the engagement Sunday I was standing on the quarterdeck organizing a patty to rescue five men trapped in Center thrust. Campbell CEM, ran up to the men and said Ensign Gavin and several other men were trapped in the forward distribution board and could be rescued by cutting through the plotting room deck. Taking the men I had with me, we went to the foundry and removed the acetylene cutting outfit. We then proceeded to the conning tower. Ensign McGrath was there and asked me to keep everybody out of Central Station except a group of picked men. He then went down to Central Station with several men including Campbell, CPM, and Rountree, P1c. We lowered the cutting outfit down to them and then procured a sledge hammer and some chisels which we also lowered to them. Ensign McGrath shouted up that the fuel oil fumes were very bad. We tried to rig a blower in the conning tower tube, but no power was available. The trapped men were rescued just before Central Station was flooded with fuel oil.


Published: Wed Jul 22 11:46:43 EDT 2015