The Story of World War IIby Henry Steele Commager, Donald L. Miller
Drawing on previously unpublished eyewitness accounts, prizewinning historian Donald L. Miller has written what critics are calling one of the most powerful accounts of warfare ever published. Here are the horror and heroism of World War II in the words of the men who fought it, the journalists who covered it, and the civilians who were caught in its fury. Miller gives us an up-close, deeply personal view of a war that was more savagely fought -- and whose outcome was in greater doubt -- than readers might imagine. This is the war that Americans at the home front would have read about had they had access to the previously censored testimony of the soldiers on which Miller builds his gripping narrative.
Miller covers the entire war -- on land, at sea, and in the air -- and provides new coverage of the brutal island fighting in the Pacific, the bomber war over Europe, the liberation of the death camps, and the contributions of African Americans and other minorities. He concludes with a suspenseful, never-before-told story of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, based on interviews with the men who flew the mission that ended the war.
James Bradley Author of Flags of Our Fathers This is the book that deserves to be titled The Story of World War II....If you seek the book that best conveys the "you are there" experience of history's greatest conflict, you hold that book in your hands.
Martin Blumenson Author of Patton Beautifully done. Donald Miller has made combat, wherever it occurred in World War II, alive and immediate.
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Read an Excerpt
from CHAPTER 4: The Rising Sun
As the Germans were preparing to attack Moscow in November 1941, and the British were battling Rommel in the North African desert, relations between Japan and the United States were reaching a crisis point.
On November 17 the Japanese ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, brought his colleague Saburo Kurusu to the office of Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Kurusu had just arrived. Alarmed by the unfavorable American reaction to its expansion into Thailand and the Southern part of French Indochina, the Japanese government had rushed this special peace envoy over to Washington to restore harmony to Japanese-American relations. But the Japanese demands were extreme Japan refused to give up its now economic colonies. And the American attitude was inflexible Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the United States and imposed a total embargo on oil and gasoline exports to Japan. Late in November Hull presented America's demand that Japan withdraw immediately all military forces from China and Indochina. The Japanese government, now headed by General Hidecki Tojo, a hard-line proponent of Imperial expansion, saw this "ultimatum" as tantamount to a declaration of war, a war Tojo wanted.
At 2:20 the next day, Sunday afternoon, December 7, the two emissaries appeared once more at Hull's office with their final reply, just after Roosevelt had telephoned Hull with the news that the Japanese were at that very moment bombing Pearl Harbor. The secretary was told to receive the diplomats' reply and quickly dismiss them. After pretending to examine the document, Hull glared atthe two men with cold disdain and said: "In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any Government on this planet was capable of uttering them." He then waved the two diplomats to the door.
Later that day, Nomura wrote in his diary: "The report of our surprise attack against Hawaii reached my ears when I returned home from the state department; this might have reached Hull's ears during our conversation" (Nomura's emphasis).
The objective of the surprise strike on the home base of the American Pacific Fleet was to destroy the only naval force in the Pacific that could interfere with simultaneous Japanese attacks on the Philippines and Malaya, giving Japan, an overpopulated island nation with insufficient natural resources, time to seize a vast area in Southeast Asia it needed to guarantee it economic self-sufficiency. The war in Europe had created an irresistible opportunity for Japan to take over these colonies of France, Britain, and the Netherlands, particularly of the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya, with their invaluable supplies of oil rubber, and tin. The attack was brilliantly planned by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Combined Fleet, and carried out almost flawlessly by Air Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. It was a daring move. A major naval base had never been attacked in broad daylight by a carrier force, and a number of high American military officials considered Pearl Harbor, the greatest concentration of American military might in the world, impregnable. Success depended on the strictest secrecy.
On November 27, the Japanese put to sea a massive task force composed of the Imperial Navy's six newest and largest carriers and accompanied by battleships, light cruisers, destroyers, fleet submarines, supply ships, and tankers. At sunrise, December 7, 230 miles north of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the air was alive with the roar of enemy planes. At 7:02 two Army privates manning an experimental radar system reported a large flight of incoming planes, but their superior officer irresponsibly assumed that these were B-17 bombers due in from California on their way to the Philippines. Just minutes earlier, the destroyer Ward attacked a tiny two-man Japanese submarine trying to slip into Pearl Harbor. These were the opening shots of World War II for the United States. The Ward's skipper, Lieutenant William W. Outerbridge, reported the attack but senior commanders were skeptical. There had been false submarine sightings in that same area even whales had been depth-charged so they would wait for verification. While they waited, 183 Japanese attack planes homed in on the radio beam of station KGMB in Honolulu, which guided them straight to their target.
The attack was a complete surprise. American cryptanalysts had broken Japan's diplomatic code and had warned Roosevelt and his advisors of an imminent attack, but all indications were that the strike would occur in Southeast Asia, not at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese carrier force had moved from the remote Kurile Islands, north of Japan, across the empty North Pacific, under absolute radio silence, confounding American naval intercept units. As historian David Kahn, an authority on World War II intelligence, has written, "code-breaking intelligence did not prevent and could not have prevented Pearl Harbor, because Japan never sent any message to anybody saying anything like 'We shall attack Pearl Harbor.'" Japan's ambassadors in Washington had not even been told of the plan. "The real reason for the success of the Pearl Harbor attack lies in the island empire's hermetic security. Despite the American code-breakers, Japan kept her secret."
Captain Mitsuo Fuchida led the attack from the flagship carrier Akagi. He was thirty-nine years old and a devoted admirer of Adolf Hitler, even to the point, with his trim black mustache, of trying to look like him. When he received orders to launch the strike at dawn, he thought to himself, "Who could be luckier than I?" Here is the story of the attack in his words:
AT 5:30 A.M., 7 DECEMBER, the cruisers Chikuma and Tone each catapulted a "Zero" floatplane for a pre-attack reconnaissance of Pearl Harbor. On carrier flight decks, readied fighter and attack planes were lined up. The flying crews, also primed for the operation, were gathered in the briefing room. The ships pitched and rolled in the rough sea, kicking up white surf from the predawn blackness of the water. At times waves came over the flight deck, and crews clung desperately to their planes to keep them from going into the sea...
On the flight deck a green lamp was waved in a circle to signal "Take off!" The engine of the foremost fighter plane began to roar. With the ship still pitching and rolling, the plane started its run, slowly at first but with steadily increasing speed. Men lining the flight deck held their breath as the first plane took off successfully just before the ship took a downward pitch. The next plane was already moving forward. There were loud cheers as each plane rose into the air.
Thus did the first wave of 183 fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes take off from the six carriers...
Under my direct command were forty-nine level bombers. About 500 meters to my right and slightly below me were forty torpedo planes. The same distance to my left, but about 200 meters above me, were fifty-one dive-bombers, and flying cover for the formation there were forty-three fighters ["Zeros"]...
A speedometer indicated 125 knots and we were favored by a tail wind...But flying over the clouds we could not see the surface of the water, and, consequently, had no check on our drift. I switched on the radio direction finder to tune in the Honolulu radio station and soon picked up some light music. By turning the antenna, I found the exact direction from which the broadcast was coming and corrected our course, which had been five degrees off...
At 7:30 we had been in the air for about an hour and a half. It was time that we were seeing land, but there was only a solid layer of clouds below. All of a sudden, the clouds broke, and a long white line of coast appeared. We were over Kahuku Point, the northern tip of the island, and now it was time for our deployment...
Meanwhile a reconnaissance report came in from the Chikuma's plane giving the location of [the battleships and cruisers]...in the harbor...Now I knew for sure that there were no carriers in the harbor. The sky cleared as we moved in on the target, and Pearl Harbor was plainly visible from the northwest valley of the island. I studied our objective through binoculars. They were there all right, all eight [battleships]. "Notify all planes to launch attacks," I ordered my radioman, who immediately began tapping the key. The order went in plain code: "To, to, to, to..." The time was 7:49...
Lieutenant Commander Takahashi and his dive-bombing group...lost no time in dashing forward. His command was divided into two groups: one led by himself which headed for Ford Island and Hickam Field, the other, led by Lieutenant Akira Sakamoto, headed for Wheeler Field.
The dive-bombers over Hickam Field saw heavy bombers lined up on the apron. Takahashi rolled his plane sharply and went into a dive, followed immediately by the rest of his planes, and the first bombs fell at Hickam. The next places hit were Ford Island and Wheeler Field. In a very short time, high billows of black smoke were rising from these bases. [Then the torpedo planes and bombers swooped down on the battleships.]...
Knowing the Admirals Nagumo and Yamamoto and the General Staff were anxious about the attack, I decided that they should be informed. I ordered that the following message be sent to the fleet: "We have succeeded in making a surprise attack. Request you relay this report to Tokyo..."
The code for a successful surprise attack was "Tora, tora, tora."...There is a Japanese saying, "A tiger (tora) goes out 1,000 ri (2,000 miles) and returns without fail."
I saw clouds of black smoke rising from Hickam and soon thereafter from Ford Island...It was not long before I saw waterspouts rising alongside the battleships, followed by more and more waterspouts. It was time to launch our level bombing attacks, so I ordered my pilot to bank sharply, which was the attack signal for the planes following us...
As my group made its bomb run, enemy antiaircraft suddenly came to life. Dark gray bursts blossomed here and there until the sky was clouded with shattering near-misses which made our plane tremble. Shipboard guns seemed to open fire before the shore batteries. I was startled by the rapidity of the counterattack which came less than five minutes after the first bomb had fallen...
Ignoring the barrage of shells bursting around us, I concentrated on the bomb loaded under the lead plane, pulled the safety bolt from the bomb-release lever and grasped the handle. It seemed as if time was standing still...
While my group was circling over Honolulu for another bombing attempt, other groups made their runs, some making three tries before succeeding. Suddenly a colossal explosion occurred in Battleship Row. A huge column of dark red smoke rose to 1,000 feet and a stiff shock wave reached our plane. I called the pilot's attention to the spectacle, and he observed, "Yes, Commander, the powder magazine must have exploded. Terrible indeed!" The attack was in full swing, and smoke from fires and explosions filled most of the sky over Pearl Harbor.
My group now entered on a bombing course again. Studying Battleship Row through binoculars, I saw that the big explosion had been on the Arizona. She was still flaming fiercely and her smoke was covering the Nevada, the target of my group. Since the heavy smoke would hinder our bomber accuracy, I looked for some other ship to attack. The Tennessee, third in the left row, was already on fire; but next in the row was the Maryland, which had not yet been attacked. I gave an order changing our target to this ship, and once again we headed into the antiaircraft fire. Then came the "ready" signal and I took a firm grip on the bomb release handle, holding my breath and staring at the bomb of the lead plane.
Pilots, observers, and radiomen all shouted, "Release!" on seeing the bomb drop from the lead plane, and all the others let go their bombs. I immediately lay flat on the floor to watch the fall of bombs through a peephole. Four bombs in perfect pattern plummeted like devils of doom. The target was so far away that I wondered for a moment if they would reach it. The bombs grew smaller and smaller until I was holding my breath for fear of losing them. I forgot everything in the thrill of watching the fall toward the target. They became small as poppy seeds and finally disappeared just as tiny white flashes of smoke appeared on and near the ship.
From a great altitude, near-misses are much more obvious than direct hits because they create wave rings in the water which are plain to see. Observing only two such rings plus two tiny flashes, I shouted, "Two hits!" and rose from the floor of the plane. These minute flashes were the only evidence we had of hits at that time, but I felt sure that they had done considerable damage. I ordered the bombers which had completed their runs to return to the carriers, but my own plane remained over Pearl Harbor to observe our successes and conduct operations still in progress.
After our bomb run, I ordered my pilot to fly over each of the air bases, where our fighters were strafing, before returning over Pearl Harbor to observe the result of our attacks on the warships. Pearl Harbor and vicinity had been turned into complete chaos in a very short time.
The target ship Utah, on the western side of Ford Island, had already capsized. On the other side of the island, the West Virginia and Oklahoma had received concentrated torpedo attacks as a result of their exposed positions in the outer row. Their sides were almost blasted off, and they listed steeply in a flood of heavy oil. The Arizona was in miserable shape; her magazine apparently having blown up, she was listing badly and burning furiously.
Two other battleships, the Maryland and Tennessee, were on fire; especially the latter whose smoke emerged in a heavy black column which towered into the sky. The Pennsylvania, unscathed in the dry dock, seemed to be the only battleship that had not been attacked...
As I observed the damage done by the first attack wave, the effectiveness of the torpedoes seemed remarkable, and I was struck with the shortsightedness of the United States in being so generally unprepared and in not using torpedo nets...
It took the planes of the first attack wave about one hour to complete their mission. By the time they were headed back to our carriers, having lost three fighters, one dive-bomber, and five torpedo planes, the second wave of 171 planes commanded by Lieutenant Commander Shigekazu Shimazaki was over the target area. Arriving off Kahuku Point at 8:40 A.M., the attack run was ordered fourteen minutes later and they swept in, making every effort to avoid the billowing clouds of smoke as well as the now-intensified antiaircraft fire.
In this second wave there were thirty-six fighters to control the air over Pearl Harbor, fifty-four high-level bombers led by Shimazaki to attack Hickam Field and the naval air station at Kaneohe, while eighty-one dive-bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Takashige Egusa flew over the mountains to the east and dashed in to hit the warships.
By the time these last arrived, the sky was so covered with clouds and smoke that planes had difficulty in locating their targets. To further complicate the problems of this attack, the ship and ground antiaircraft fire was now very heavy. But Egusa was undaunted in leading his dive-bombers through the fierce barrage. The planes chose as their targets the ships which were putting up the stiffest repelling fire. This choice proved effective, since these ships had suffered least from the first attack. Thus, the second attack achieved a nice spread, hitting the least-damaged battleships as well as previously undamaged cruisers and destroyers. This attack also lasted about one hour, but due to the increased return fire, it suffered higher casualties, six fighters and fourteen dive-bombers being lost.
After the second wave was headed back to the carriers, I circled Pearl Harbor once more to observe and photograph the results. I counted four battleships definitely sunk and three severely damaged. Still another battleship appeared to be slightly damaged and extensive damage had also been inflicted upon other types of ships. The seaplane base at Ford Island was all in flames, as were the airfields, especially Wheeler Field.
A detailed survey of damage was impossible because of the dense pall of black smoke. Damage to the airfields was not determinable, but it was readily apparent that no planes on the fields were operational. In the three hours that my plane was in the area, we did not encounter a single enemy plane. It seemed that at least half the island's air strength must have been destroyed...
My plane was just about the last one to get back to the Akagi, where refueled and rearmed planes were being lined up on the busy flight deck in preparation for yet another attack. I was called to the bridge as soon as the plane stopped, and could tell on arriving there that Admiral Nagumo's staff had been engaged in heated discussions about the advisability of launching the next attack. They were waiting for my account of the battle.
"Four battleships definitely sunk," I reported. "One sank instantly, another capsized, the other two settled to the bottom of the bay and may have capsized." This seemed to please Admiral Nagumo, who observed, "We may then conclude that anticipated results have been achieved."
Discussion next centered upon the extent of damage inflicted at airfields and airbases; and I expressed my views saying, "All things considered, we have achieved a great amount of destruction, but it would be unwise to assume that we have destroyed everything. There are still many targets remaining which should be hit. Therefore, I recommend that another attack be launched."
The factors which influenced Admiral Nagumo's decision the target of much criticism by naval experts, and an interesting subject for naval historians have long been unknown, since the man who made it died in the summer of 1944 when U.S. forces invaded the Marianas. I know of only one document in which Admiral Nagumo's reasons are set forth, and there they are given as follows:
- The first attack had inflicted all the damage we had hoped for, and another attack could not be expected to greatly increase the extent of that damage.
- Enemy return fire had been surprisingly prompt, even though we took them by surprise; another attack would meet stronger opposition and our losses would certainly be disproportionate to the additional destruction which might be inflicted.
- Intercepted enemy messages indicated at least fifty large planes still operational; and we did not know the whereabouts of the enemy's carriers, cruisers, and submarines.
- To remain within range of enemy land-based planes was distinctly to our disadvantage, especially since the effectiveness of our air reconnaissance was extremely limited.
I had done all I could to urge another attack, but the decision rested entirely with Admiral Nagumo, and he chose to retire without launching the next attack. Immediately flag signals were hoisted ordering the course change, and our ships headed northward at high speed.
In 1941, the Japanese made up about 40 percent of the Hawaiian population, and almost all of them were strongly pro-American. On December 7, seventeen-year-old Daniel K. Inouye, a second-generation Japanese-American (and later a seven-term senator from Hawaii), was dressing for church when he heard over the radio that Oahu was being bombed by Japanese warplanes:
"PAPA!" I CALLED, THEN FROZE into immobility, my fingers clutching that [radio] button. I could feel blood hammering against my temple, and behind it the unspoken protest, like a prayer It's not true! It is a test, or a mistake! It can't be true! but somewhere in the core of my being I knew that all my world was crumbling as I stood motionless in that little bedroom and listened to the disembodied voice of doom.
Now my father was standing in the doorway listening, caught by that special horror instantly sensed by Americans of Japanese descent as the nightmare began to unfold...
"Come outside!" my father said to me, and I plunged through the door after him...
We stood in the warm sunshine on the south side of the house and stared out toward Pearl Harbor. Black puffs of anti-aircraft smoke littered the pale sky...And then we saw the planes. They came zooming where we stood and climbing into the bluest part of the sky...
I fell back against the building as they droned near, but my father stood rigid in the center of the sidewalk and stared up into that malignant sky, and out of the depths of his shock and torment came a tortured cry: "You fools!"
We went back into the house and the telephone was ringing. It was the secretary of the Red Cross aid station where I taught. "How soon can you be here, Dan?" he said tensely.
"I'm on my way," I told him. I felt a momentary surge of elation he wanted me! I could do something! and I grabbed a sweater and started for the door.
"Where are you going?" my mother cried. She was pointing vaguely out the window, toward the sky, and said, "They'll kill you."
"Let him go," my father said firmly. "He must go."...
It would be five days, a lifetime, before I came back. The kid who set out on his bicycle for the aid station at Lunalilo School that morning of December 7 was lost forever in the debris of the war's first day, lost among the dead and the dying, and when I finally did come home I was a seventeen-year-old man.
The planes were gone as I pumped furiously toward the aid station, more than a mile away. The acrid smell of smoke had drifted up from Pearl and people, wide-eyed with terror, fumbling for some explanation, something to do, had spilled into the streets. What would become of them, I agonized, these thousands, suddenly rendered so vulnerable and helpless by this monstrous betrayal at the hands of their ancestral land? In those first chaotic moments, I was absolutely incapable of understanding that I was one of them, that I, too, had been betrayed, and all of my family.
An old Japanese grabbed the handlebars of my bike as I tried to maneuver around a cluster of people in the street. "Who did it?" he yelled at me. "Was it the Germans? It must have been the Germans!"
I shook my head, unable to speak, and tore free of him. My eyes blurred with tears, tears of pity for that old man, because he could not accept the bitter truth, tears for all these frightened people in [our] teeming, poverty-ridden [neighborhood]. They had worked so hard. They had wanted so desperately to be accepted, to be good Americans. And now, in a few cataclysmic minutes, it was all undone, for in the marrow of my bones I knew that there was only deep trouble ahead. And then, pedaling along, it came to me at last that I would face that trouble, too, for my eyes were shaped just like those of that poor old man in the street, and my people were only a generation removed from the land that had...sent those bombers...sent them to rain destruction on America...And choking with emotion, I looked up into the sky and called out, "You dirty Japs!"
The USS Solace was the only hospital ship at anchor at Pearl Harbor that morning. On board was corpsman James F. Anderson of Fort Worth, Texas:
ON THAT PARTICULAR MORNING we were off the end of Ford Island with a clear view of Battleship Row...I had cleaned up and was standing in line waiting for eight o'clock to roll around, when our liberty boats would come. We were standing at a large cargo hatch looking out across the bay and could clearly see the old battleship Utah, which was used as a target ship. I could see the men milling around on her deck as they waited to catch their liberty boats. About this time some planes came down through the mist of the early morning. I said to a friend beside me, "Well, it looks like we're going to have another one of those damn sham battles this morning."
But as these planes came in there were five of them, I remember they dropped torpedoes, and I said, "That's too much. They don't drop torpedoes." As the torpedoes were going through the water and before they hit the Utah, the planes flew up over the top of our ship. I could see the red balls on their wings. "My God, those are Japanese. Let's get this damn hatch shut."
At that moment the torpedoes hit the Utah and the ship appeared to jump oh, ten, maybe twenty feet in the air. This giant ship...
Our old chief pharmacist's mate came running out. He was pulling his suspenders up over his shoulders and was in his sock feet. The officer of the deck, a young ensign, was in absolute panic. He didn't know what to do. The chief sent him to the bridge and told him to make the ship ready for getting under way, then picked up the phone and told the engine room to fire up the boilers and make ready for getting under way.
All the men from my ward, following what we had learned from our drills in the past, began to put metal covers over the windows. While we were doing this, I kept turning around to see what was going on, and I saw more planes coming in, passing over Battleship Row dropping bombs. I remember very clearly what looked like a dive-bomber coming in over the Arizona and dropping a bomb. I saw that bomb go down through what looked like a stack, and almost instantly it cracked the bottom of the Arizona, blowing the whole bow loose. It rose out of the water and settled. I could see flames, fire, and smoke coming out of that ship, and I saw two men flying through the air and the fire, screaming as they went. Where they ended up I'll never know...
Almost immediately we started getting casualties, and from that point on I was very busy in our surgical ward. I remember only one of the men we got was able to tell us his name. The others were all in such critical condition they couldn't talk at all. They were all very badly burned from the oil and flash burns. The one who gave us his name did not have a single stitch of clothing on. The only thing left was a web belt with his chief's buckle, his chief-master-at-arms' badge, and the letters USS Nevada. He survived but he had a very long cut down the top of his head and every time he breathed his scalp would open up and I could see his skull.
We were using tannic acid for the burns. Every sheet we had in the ward was immediately brown. Many of the men who came in had their ears burned completely off, their noses badly burned, and their fingers bent like candles from the intense heat they had been in. Their bodies were just like hot dogs that had fallen in the fire and burned. All we could do for those poor fellows was give them morphine and pour the tannic acid over them...
I think we must have gone through forty-eight hours without any sleep all spent tending to our patients. There was so much adrenaline pumped into the body a person couldn't sleep. But after forty-eight hours I got to the point where I was staggering around. One of the bunks became empty a man died and we put him on a stretcher to take him down to our morgue. A nurse came along and said, "You get on that bunk and grab some sleep." I don't know how long I slept, but after a while somebody woke me up because another patient had to go in the bunk. I got up and went back to work again. Nobody ever thought of asking for relief.
In the days after the attack, boats from our hospital ship had the awful job of going out alongside the battleships and picking up the remains of the bodies that had floated to the surface. Our corpsmen tried very hard to salvage any part of a human body that could be identified. We brought these parts back and tried to identify fingerprints or teeth or anything of this kind. It was a gruesome job but we had to do it the detail was assigned to us. The parts were brought to the morgue, where we would clean them of oil and try to identify them.
On December 7 and 8, rescue crews worked frantically to reach sailors trapped in the battleship Oklahoma, which was hit by five aerial torpedoes and overturned.
One of the thirty-two seamen caught in the doomed ship, which rested upside down at the bottom of the shallow harbor, a part of its massive hull exposed above the water, was nineteen-year-old Stephen Bower Young, a native of Massachusetts. The ship had been his "home," and now he expected it would be his tomb.
ON THE MORNING OF DECEMBER 7, 1941, I was in the living compartment of the gun crew of the battleship Oklahoma's no. 4 gun turret, one deck below the main deck. There were thirty or so of us there and I was preparing to go on liberty as soon as I finished my duties as mess cook. It was a beautiful Sunday, a perfect day for going to the beach and doing some surfing.
Our ship, along with most of the Pacific Fleet, had been at sea on maneuvers and had only yesterday returned to Pearl Harbor. There were eight battleships in port, and we thought this was strange, for tensions were running high with Japan. As a precautionary move, it had been the practice to keep some of the battlewagons at sea. Like all the other ships, we had our antiaircraft ammunition stored away under lock and key in preparation for a fleet admiral's inspection the following day, Monday the 8th. For the inspection, we also opened up all watertight compartments below the waterline. When in port, we usually closed these compartments, as a safeguard against flooding in the event of an attack or an accident. But for the admiral's inspection we even opened the spaces in the watertight protective blisters that ran along the length of the ship. The blisters were designed to absorb the explosions of torpedoes before they could penetrate the skin of the ship and do heavy damage. So our ship, like the other battleships in port, was in a state of complete nonreadiness that Sunday.
Around eight o'clock that morning an announcement came over the ship's speaker system. "Man the antiaircraft batteries! Man the antiaircraft batteries!" This stunned us. Why were we having drills on Sunday and in port? What the hell was going on?
The sailors who manned the antiaircraft guns flew to their battle stations, but our stations were in the No. 4 gun turret and our three big 14-inch guns couldn't be used against aircraft. So we stalled momentarily and looked at each other. Then, almost immediately, there was another announcement. "All hands, man your battle stations! This is no shit, Goddamn it! Jap planes are bombing us!"
Ensign Herbert Rommel, our chief turret officer, had just seen a torpedo from one of the Japanese planes slam into a cruiser and had instinctively raced to the ship's general announcing system and given this warning. This was not Navy protocol, Navy language, but it sure got everybody's attention, and we raced toward our battle stations in the turret.
To understand what happened next you have to understand how the gun turret was set up. The enormous 1,400-pound projectiles were hoisted up into the gun chamber from the shell deck, where more than 150 of them were stored, standing on end, in cradles, and lashed against the bulkhead with light rope to prevent them from flipping over. After they were loaded into the breeches, powder bags from the powder-handling room, four decks below, were sent up on hoists into the hoist room, where I worked. We then sent the powder into the gun chamber, where it was loaded with the projectiles.
It was possible to enter the turret from topside, through a small hatch, and from there, scramble down through the turret to your station. But I preferred to enter from below, through a heavy steel door into the powder-handling room, and climb a ladder to my station.
That morning, as I raced down to the lower entrance of the turret with other men in my crew I felt the ship jump and then shake. We had been hit by a torpedo from a Japanese plane, but we all thought we had been bombed. "It's the Japs, the frigging Japs!" a sailor up top yelled down the hatch to us. "The shit's hit the fan!"
By the time I got to the next deck, we were hit by another torpedo and our lights went out. Complete darkness. But someone had a flashlight, and we knew our way so well that there was no problem going down a ladder to the level of the entrance to the gun turret. There was a ladder there and I scrambled up through the powder-handling room to the shell deck. The auxiliary lights came back on and we all thought we were safe there for the moment, four decks down and protected by the heavy armor of the gun turret. And nobody thought an airplane could sink a battleship!
But then the ship started to list badly as water poured into the gaping holes in her side, surging through the blisters and all the open hatches that were ordinarily closed in port. Then we started to hear terrible noises. The tremendous stress of the water began to twist and break up the ship. It sounded as if the old battleship was groaning in pain. We also heard crashing noises as bunks, mess tables, lockers, dishes, everything, began to be thrown around. And we could hear the screams of sailors caught in the path of the rushing water, or in the direct force of the torpedo blasts. We didn't know it, but the Oklahoma, our home, was mortally wounded.
As the water began to reach us, the sailors slammed down the watertight door to the powder-handling room. The entire turret was now watertight. It was less than three minutes since we had been called to our battle stations.
I was moving up through the turret with some other men to our battle station when we ran into Ensign Rommel. He was very excited. He told us to go below to the powder-handling room. We couldn't fire our big guns anyway, and we would be safer there. So I climbed back down and joined twenty or so other sailors there.
The ship was then hit by another torpedo, number three. We were now listing 25 or 30 degrees and water started coming in the lower side of the compartment. At the same time, we were being drenched by oil that came pouring down from the damaged machines in the shell deck above, and this made the floor dangerously slippery. We knew we had to get up to the next deck, the shell deck, as soon as possible, for the ship was sinking. From the shell deck it was possible to climb to the top of the ship and jump overboard.
As the ship listed hard, everything that was not tied down went rolling and smashing along the slippery steel deck of the powder-handling room. Sailors were slipping and sliding and falling down. As I clung to a bulkhead for support, I looked at the faces of my shipmates. Men looked scared and unbelieving. Then there was another tremendous hit, the fourth torpedo. The ship rocked and shuddered. Water poured from up above, down through the openings in the deck and spaces overhead ventilator shafts, portholes, hatches as the ship heeled well over on her port side. We tried to hold on to anything that would keep us above the water. Several sailors lost their grip and fell into the oily water and lay there, still. I could do nothing but hold on desperately.
Sailors started up the ladder, one at a time. I was right behind them but the ladder was so jammed it was impossible for me to move. I could hear noises from the crew manning the shell deck. As the ship listed, the cradles holding the big shells started to swing. When I saw all those shells rocking back and forth in their cradles on the shell deck, and heard the men yelling, I jumped off the ladder and onto a bulkhead, grabbed a piece of iron, and held on for dear life.
Then the 1,400-pound projectiles broke loose from their rope lashings. The last thing the men on the shell deck saw was dozens of huge steel shells rolling down the deck at them. They screamed as they were crushed into the deck. Then it got real quiet. We looked up but couldn't see. The hatch had been knocked shut. Our shipmates were crushed to death, we knew. Later I learned that three of my best friends were killed on the shell deck.
At that moment, several sailors realized that there was only one other way out through the same hatch door by which we had entered the powder-handling room. "Get the goddamn door open!" someone yelled. "We've got to get out of here!"
But the ship was rolling over and the door was quickly getting out of reach as it rose above our heads with the listing of the ship. It was also tightly secured and we didn't have the proper tools to open it. But somehow the men forced it open and a couple of them managed to make it topside before the ship went completely over. The water poured down on them but they made it, struggling, choking, gasping for air, not able to see in the pitch dark. "God help me," one guy said as he went through the hatch.
On the other side of the handling room, a dozen or so of us were making our own fight for survival, for we couldn't get to the hatch in time. We thought maybe we could get up the ladder to the shell deck and force the hatch open. Just then, the emergency lights went out. The darkness was absolute. Several of us struggled to open the hatch, but the shells must have jammed it shut. We were trapped! We were going to die!
At that moment the ship took her fifth torpedo and rolled over and her great masts dug into the mud bottom of Pearl Harbor, forty feet down. Her lower starboard side and bottom remained a few feet above water, we learned later.
But at that moment I was so disoriented by the darkness and the wild confusion about me that I didn't even realize the ship had capsized. I had felt the ship lurch. The deck slipped out from under me and my hands snatched at empty air. I was tossed and spun around, pitched into a great nothingness, suspended in air as the ship turned about me. The water roared in and took me under. I surfaced, gulped for air, and began to tread water. I was amazed to find myself still alive. There were two or three dead bodies floating in the water. Just then, I heard my friend Bill "Popeye" Schauf cry out, "I can't swim. So long, boys." I swam over to him, grabbed what little hair he had, and held his head above the water as we thrashed around.
He said, "We are over." The ship had rolled to about 135 degrees. For all intents and purposes, it was upside down. Suddenly, everything got quiet, as many of us realized that our fight for survival had just begun.
When men started to talk there was a lot of anger directed at Ensign Rommel. After telling us to go below, he had climbed to the top of the turret and escaped, swimming from the listing ship to a rescue vessel. At the time, we didn't know what had happened to him but clearly he had abandoned ship, without telling his men to do the same. This would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Yet one man had yelled down to us, through the turret, to abandon ship before we capsized. It was turret captain Harald Oleson. He then risked his life to get everybody out of the upper turret, but he couldn't get to the men below. Thanks to a number of unsung heroes like him we lost only one third of our crew, 448 men.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, fifteen or sixteen men remained trapped in the bowels of the Oklahoma. We had a large flashlight but we rarely turned it on for fear of using up the batteries. After our brief exchange about Rommel, there was little talk. We didn't want to use up our limited supply of air.
About this time, we realized that there was a narrow emergency escape hatch which led directly all the way to the main deck. One of the seamen, Clarence Mullaley, decided that he would try to make it down the escape hatch, four decks, all underwater, across some thirty feet of main deck, and then up to the surface, another thirty feet at least. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with air, ducked underwater and pulled himself into the escape hatch. It was an act of desperate courage. After he left somebody said he would never make it out, but unbelievably he did and he was picked up by a motor launch and taken to the hospital ship Solace, although none of us knew that then. It was about eleven o'clock and we had been trapped almost three hours. It was Mullaley, by the way, who told his rescuers we were trapped in the ship and were still alive.
Down below, as water continued to ooze in and the air got thinner, I said to my buddy, "Wimpy" Hinsperger, "Wimpy, I'll bet you a dollar we'll suffocate before we drown."
"I'll take that bet," he said. "I think we'll drown first."
All avenues of escape seemed closed to us except the escape hatch and I wasn't ready to make that desperate, final effort. Not yet. Every now and then one of us rapped out the distress call SOS in Morse code with a wrench on the steel bulkhead. Maybe the Navy would rescue us. But for all we knew, the Japanese had taken over control of Pearl Harbor and they would never try to get us out. "We'll never get laid again," one sailor said.
Just about then, a body of a shipmate floated by, and someone pushed it away. Sooner or later we might join him, I thought. I took out a handful of change from my pocket and tossed the coins in the oily water. But I must have retained a shred of hope, because I kept my folding money a ten and a one in my wallet.
While we were sitting there, wondering what to do, a big awkward guy named Daniel Weissman spoke up, "Frig it. I'm going down the escape hatch and I can't swim!" I was sure he couldn't make it, but it was his life he was risking. We had no right to stop him. He ducked underwater and didn't come back. But he made it, we later found out, and several hours later a third man went down the hatch and, unknown to us, made it out. There were no more attempts to escape. It was too late. The air was getting bad and none of the eleven of us who remained had the strength to try to escape.
As the water continued to rise in the turret, we broke into the locked Lucky Bag, the ship's clothing storage room. It was dry there and we could stretch out on a bed of clothing and mattresses.
I was lying against the bulkhead in the Lucky Bag when I was startled to hear voices on the other side of the steel wall. I said, "Who's in there?" "We're radiomen," a voice came back. They said they were trapped and that there were also some guys trapped in a compartment right next to them. They knew of no rescue efforts. "It looks bad," they said. So we stopped talking. There was no whining or complaining. There was nothing that we could do. And we were worn down mentally and physically. Yet though we had nothing to eat or drink for almost a day, I was, amazingly, not hungry or thirsty.
Our watches had been broken and we had lost all track of time. Yet it didn't seem to matter. We were in a kind of limbo zone, a state of semiconsciousness between waking and sleeping. Then, all of a sudden, we heard a hammering sound, in short bursts, somewhere in the ship. I sat straight up and I could hear my heart pounding in my chest. Was somebody trying to get us? Then the rapping noises stopped. But a few minutes later they started again. My whole body tensed up. This went on for a couple of hours, first the noises, closer and closer, then silence. Someone said it was a pneumatic air hammer. They were trying to get to us to cut us out.
We frantically banged the SOS with the hammer, louder and louder, to let them know where we were. All of a sudden, we heard the rescuers break through to the men in the radio compartment. "There's some guys trapped in there, in the Lucky Bag," I heard one of the radiomen say. "We'll get 'em," a confident voice replied. We were going to live! As it turned out, the Lucky Bag was appropriately named.
The rescuers, led by a Portuguese civilian Navy yard worker named Julio De Castro, drilled a small hole through the bulkhead, only inches from where I was. Now at least we could see. But just then we heard a violent hissing sound. Trapped air had begun rushing out the tiny hole in the bulkhead and water started coming into the Lucky Bag in a torrent. It was jetting in through the watertight door we hadn't thought necessary to close. The sudden reduction in air pressure in the air pocket caused by the hole the rescuers had drilled was allowing the water to pour in and flood the area; there was no longer opposing pressure to hold back the waters of Pearl Harbor. And what little air we had left was escaping through that hole.
As the workers used a chipping hammer powered by an air compressor to cut a larger hole in the steel bulkhead, three or four of our guys struggled to get the heavy hatch door closed. They could barely see and the force of the water was unbelievable. "Hurry up! Get that fucking door closed," someone shouted. We all thought we were going to drown in that tiny compartment, just when we were a quarter of an inch of steel from being rescued. But Castro kept assuring us: "Keep calm, young men, we'll get you out."
We were at last able to get the door shut, although we couldn't seal it tight, so water kept gushing in the sides of the door and air kept escaping with an ominous hissing sound. The water was now up to our waists and we yelled for the rescuers to hurry up. Men on both sides of that quarter-inch steel bulkhead knew it would be close, a race against time.
Finally the big chipping hammer cut part of an opening in the bulkhead, and the rescuers slammed the steel back with tremendous blasts from a sledgehammer. The hole was barely big enough for us to squeeze through. And it appeared just in time, for the water was up to our shoulders. I was the first or second to climb out, and a big Hawaiian yard worker said to me, "Up on my back, boy." I said, "Thanks, but I'm okay." And he boosted me up to the next level. When I got to the bottom what was now the top of the ship, the air was fresh and the sun was shining.
As we crawled out of the overturned ship the sailors on the battleship Maryland, which had been tied up alongside the Oklahoma, cheered. We waved back at them and smiled. We stood on the Oklahoma's bottom, oil-covered and almost naked.
Along with the radio guys, we were among the first to be pulled out of the ship. More than 400 men had gone down with the Oklahoma. But there would only be a few more survivors. All together, De Castro and his Navy yard team saved thirty-two Oklahoma sailors trapped below.
It was 0900, Monday, December 8. We'd been trapped for twenty-five hours. A motor launch from the hospital ship Solace came alongside the overturned Oklahoma and took us away. One of our guys looked around at the smoke and devastation in the harbor, and said, "Looks like we lost the war."
As our launch moved across the harbor, past the sunken West Virginia and the still smoking wreckage of the Arizona, we were too shocked to speak. It would take time to realize the enormity of that attack on Pearl Harbor. But we all knew that nothing would ever be the same for us. The world had changed. We knew that at the time, we really did.
By the way, when De Castro got back to his shop in the Navy yard, after twenty-seven hours of backbreaking, dangerous work, he was called to task for putting in too much overtime. It was late and he couldn't find a ride home, so he walked the five miles. Later, he received a Navy Commendation for his heroism. He didn't make a big deal of this. He claimed he was just doing his job. We were just survivors. He was a hero.
The Oklahoma lost 448 men at Pearl Harbor, more men than any other ship except the Arizona. Together the crews of these two ships accounted for nearly one third of the dead at Pearl Harbor. These were the only battleships that were not repaired and returned to duty. The Arizona remains where it sank, with 1,103 men entombed in the wreckage, men who died before they knew who or why they were fighting. The explosion that finally sank the Arizona killed more human beings than any single explosion in recorded history, a record broken less than four years later by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which some considered revenge for Pearl Harbor.
Using heavy electric winches, Navy workers righted Oklahoma and divers removed the remains of over 400 men who had gone down with her. The old battlewagon, however, was too badly damaged to be repaired and sent back to sea. After the war, she was sold for scrap. While being towed to the West Coast she took on a list the same heavy port list she'd taken on December 7, 1941 and sank. Better an honorable ocean grave, her former crew rejoiced, than to be cut up, as sailors say, to make razor blades.
Stephen Bower Young returned to service on the light cruiser Honolulu. He received a Navy Unit Commendation and five Battle Stars while serving in the Aleutian, Guadalcanal, and New Georgia campaigns. After the war, he graduated from Harvard.
During his thirty-five-year naval career, Captain Herbert F. Rommel commanded five ships. He received the Bronze Star for combat while commanding a destroyer during the Korean War. When he was still an ensign, he told Stephen Bower Young that he deeply regretted not having told the sailors he left behind in turret No. 4 to abandon ship.
Turret Captain First Class Harald R. A. Oleson, who had risked his life to go back inside turret No. 4 to warn his shipmates to abandon ship and then helped rescue four men in the boiling waters of Pearl Harbor, even though he couldn't swim, was killed later in the war. His ship came alongside the aircraft carrier Princeton, which had been turned into an inferno by Japanese planes during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Oleson could have stayed in his gun mount, but he helped fight the fire and was killed by an explosion, which blew off both his legs. He was never awarded a medal or commendation for what he did then or on December 7, 1941, "a day," as Stephen Bower Young observes, "when many acts of bravery went unnoticed."
One of the heroes on that terrible Sunday was a twenty-two-year-old mess attendant from Waco, Texas, Doris Miller. When a piece of shrapnel struck the captain of the West Virginia, Mervyn S. Bennion, mortally wounding him, Miller, the ship's heavyweight boxing champion, carried him through flames and smoke to a safer place. After Bennion died, Miller manned an abandoned machine gun, which an ensign showed him how to operate, and began blazing away at enemy planes. He was the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross and was later featured in a recruiting poster after he was killed in action off Makin Island on November 24, 1943.
Eight battleships, three light cruisers, three destroyers, and four auxiliary craft were either sunk or damaged in the lightning attack that lasted less than two hours. Arizona and Oklahoma were wrecked beyond repair, and three battleships, West Virginia, California, and Nevada, were put out of action temporarily. The Army and Navy lost 165 aircraft, most of them on the ground. The Navy lost 2,008 men killed and 710 wounded, over twice as many as in the Spanish-American War and World War I combined. The Army and Marine Corps together lost 327 killed and 433 wounded. Sixty-eight civilians were killed. By comparison, Japan lost five midget submarines and only twenty-nine of the 354 planes launched from its carrier task force, although many others were badly shot up. It was one of warfare's most one-sided victories.
It was America's greatest military disaster, but not as the Japanese had hoped, an irretrievable one. The three carriers in the Pacific Fleet, Enterprise, Saratoga, and Lexington the fleet's main striking force in the new age of aerial warfare that Pearl Harbor helped to inaugurate were not in port that morning. And the Japanese did not attack the enormous fuel dump at Pearl Harbor, the submarine base, or the naval repair shops. Without fueling or repair facilities the entire fleet would have had to return to the West Coast. Except Arizona and Oklahoma, all of the war ships that were sunk or damaged were back in active service within a year. The waters of Pearl Harbor were so shallow that ships were salvaged that would have been lost forever had they been sunk in open seas.
It was the first attack by a foreign power on American territory since the War of 1812 and the nation reacted with utter incredulity, then with indignation and a deep desire for revenge. The attack on Pearl Harbor "shook the United States as nothing had since the firing on Fort Sumter," wrote Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, the navy's chief historian. Republicans and Democrats, interventionists and isolationists, labor and capital, closed ranks in a solid phalanx, and the nation moved from peace to war with a unity which it had never known before in time of crisis. Shortly after noon on December 8, President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of the Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Japan. Congress responded with only a single dissenting vote.
The previous morning, back in Tokyo, Emperor Hirohito had been told that the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was successful. "Throughout the day," one of his aides wrote in his diary, "the emperor wore his naval uniform and seemed to be in a splendid mood."
On December 11, Germany declared war on the United States, a decision perhaps even more calamitous for its cause than its invasion of Russia. "Now it is impossible for us to lose the war!" Hitler excitedly told his skeptical generals. "We now have an ally who has never been vanquished in three thousand years."
Mussolini declared war on the United States hours after Hitler's announcement. Now it was truly a world war.
The French correspondent Robert Guillain was under internment in Tokyo when the newspapers hit the streets announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor. He watched people's reactions as they read the papers they hurriedly bought from bell-ringing vendors:
THEY TOOK A FEW STEPS, then suddenly stopped to read more carefully; the heads lowered, then recoiled. When they looked up their faces were again inscrutable, transformed into masks of seeming indifference. Not a word to the vendor, nor to each other. This was a Monday, and the war had stricken these people as they were returning peacefully to work after a fine, sunny Sunday. Not one of them dared voice his feelings, open himself candidly to his neighbors or to his unknown countrymen pressing around the old man selling papers.
I knew them well enough to understand their reaction. The astonishment and consternation they felt was visible under their impassive expression. They had instigated the war and yet they did not want it. Out of bravado, and to imitate their leaders, they had talked constantly about it, but they had not believed it would happen. What? A new war? For it was now added, superimposed, on the China war that had dragged on for three and a half years. And this time what an enemy: America!...The America which the Japanese for a quarter of a century had thought of as the champion of modern civilization, the ever-admired, ever-imitated model...
Japan was at war with terrifying America. The Japanese people's feelings had always been divided; they were torn between the official slogan exhorting them to intransigence and a secret intuition that told them this was madness. Their strongest feeling on that morning of December 8 was one of consternation. Collectively, the nation had let itself be carried away by war hysteria, but individually, each Japanese, always so different when he is on his own, isolated from the group, feared the war. He could already see himself giving up all his little comforts, uprooted by mobilization from the narrow compass of his daily life, and he knew perfectly well that on that day he would appear brave in public. Alone, or at home, he would be green with worry, would have sudden crying jags.
"Sensô! War! A Japanese-American war!"
Tokyo was afraid. The Japanese were frightened by what they had dared to do. The war news that came back to Japan after December 8 changed the public mood from anxiety to exuberance.
On the afternoon of December 7, Private James Jones was being transported with his unit from Schofield Barracks to Pearl City. As the line of trucks passed Pearl Harbor, with smoke columns rising "as far as the eye could see," he recalls thinking "that none of our lives would ever be the same, that a social, even a cultural watershed had been crossed which we could never go back over, and I wondered how many of us would survive to see the end results. I wondered if I would. I had just turned twenty, the month before."
Copyright 1945 by Henry Steele Commager
Copyright renewed by Lou Reda Productions and Mary Steele Commager
Revisions and introduction copyright © 2001 by Donald L. Miller
Meet the Author
Donald L. Miller is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College and author of nine books, including City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, and Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America. He has hosted, coproduced, or served as historical consultant for more than thirty television documentaries and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. Visit DonaldMillerBooks.com.
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