December 7, 1941
by John Newnam
Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor TH
This peaceful Sunday morning began as a typical tranquil tropical day. The trade winds were blowing as usual, patchy clouds floated lazily through the sky. It was raining up in the mountains that are the backbone for the Island of Oahu. We were at peace. The Fleet was in since Pearl Harbor was the Fleet's Home Port in 1941.
Two shipmates and I, not having the duty, had planned to catch a bus at the Navy Yard entrance that would take us to the Army/Navy Y in downtown Honolulu to get a taxi that would drive us around the Island on a site seeing tour. This could have been accomplished in less than a day.
Since Sunday was basically an OFF day for all personnel except the duty section there was no reveille. Anticipating our trip, we got up at approximately 0630 and prepared to go to chow wearing our white trousers and white T-shirts which was the uniform of the day if you didn't leave the Base. We went down to chow which, I remember well, was pancakes, eggs, bacon and coffee. After chow we went to the head (a Navy bathroom) on the second deck of the barracks. It was now approximately 0750 as we were washing our hands and getting ready to leave the Base. The windows in the head faced in the direction of Honolulu. Immediately behind the Base and Navy Yard was a Naval Fuel Depot consisting of a number of storage tanks. The one nearest the Submarine Base had been camouflaged. Looking through the window toward Honolulu, we suddenly were aware of a flight of low flying planes. This had little significance since planes were landing and taking off from Hickham Army Air Force Base and Ford Island Naval Base in the center of Pearl Harbor at any given time of day.
As we were watching, one of the planes fired several rounds at the camouflaged storage tanks. The bullets ricocheted off the tank and hit dirt at the top of the berm surrounding the tank. A buddy remarked, "That guy had better look out or he's gonna be in a lot of trouble." (The time was approximately 0755) As we watched, the plane flew directly overhead. There was no mistaking the meaning of the site of the "Rising Sun" symbol on the tip of the wing, the 18 foot torpedo strapped to its belly and the plane's two man crew. Within a few unsuspecting seconds, the peaceful morning was being invaded by units of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Torpedo Bombers led the attack on Pearl Harbor as their mission was to sink and destroy as many ships as possible. Fighter Bombers followed. We later learned that they had also simultaneously attacked the military installations of Hickham Field, Ewa Marine Air Base, and Kaneohe Naval Base with Fighters and Fighter Bombers. We also found out later that just minutes prior to the attack, a ship patroling the waters just outside the Harbor had sited an unidentified submarine and sank it. The Ship's Captain radioed the Navy Yard Commander's office with the message, "Sited submarine; sank same." The Duty Officer in the Navy Yard office reportedly notified the Navy Yard Commander at his home of this action and was told, "Get me confirmation." By the time the Commander arrived on the scene, the major damage had already been done. As he observed the devastation from his office window, the Duty Officer, who had informed him of the submarine sinking, turned to him and said, "Captain, there's your confirmation." It was also discovered that a number of other enemy two-man submarines were operating in the waters off the southern shore of the Island. One ran aground off Waikiki Beach, was captured, and brought to the Submarine Base and placed very prominently on display. It contained a two-man crew. The two-man Sub had been strapped to the deck of the larger submarine. The crew, prior to launching from the submarine deck, had been sealed inside. It was a kamikazai mission. The Sub later had to be moved due to the offensive odor emitting from the remains of the suicide crew. It was sanitized and shipped back to the States and placed on tour to sell War Bonds.
As I stared at the "Rising Sun" symbol, the scene was surreal. My first thought was, "Is this really happening?" Disbelief turned to anger, as by instinct, I ran On-the-Double to the Armory located approximately one hundred yards away in the first deck of the Administration Building. I was handed a rifle and an ammunition belt with bayonet attached.
When I turned to leave, I met Sammy, my Chief, and I ask him, "Chief, what do you want me to do?" He answered, "The first thing you do is get out of those Whites. I ran On-the-Double back to my locker on the second deck of the barracks, changed into dungarees, and started back to my Station. Half way there, I stopped and fired five rounds at a low flying torpedo plane. An Officer running past me, shouted, "Better save your ammunition."
Then as I looked toward Battle Ship Row, the USS Arizona exploded in a tremendous ball of fire, billows of smoke, and thundering noise. I did not know at that time that over eleven hundred Navy men perished in that explosion. I returned to my Station as instructed by my Chief. Enemy planes were like a swarm of hornets flying and attacking anything in site, particularly Battle Ship Row and the Navy Yard. The Submarine Base was strafed, but not bombed.
Admiral Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet arrived shortly after the attack began with his usual two man Marine Escort. And approximately 45 minutes into the attack the Officer of the Day gave the order to "fix bayonet", meaning attach the bayonet to the end of your rifle. This action created thoughts in my mind with regard to what a bayonet is basically used for. Were we anticipating Landing Forces? Fortunately, as the day past, there were none. This brought a momentary relief to my mind. Time seemed to stand still even though the attack lasted slightly over two hours. So far no bombs had been dropped on the Submarine Base or ships that were docked there. The enemy planes continued their ruthless attack, firing at everything at will. They was no opposition from our aircraft because, as I later learned, they had all been destroyed in the initial attack as they sat idle adjacent to the runways. At that time, planes were lined up military fashion, side-by-side. The simple, look sharp formation, however, made them an easy target for a single fly-over to pick them off. And this was accomplished by the enemy in a matter of minutes.
A squadron of B-24 bombers scheduled to land at Hickham Field, arrived unwittingly from the West Coast right in the thick of the attack. Ironically, they had no weapons on board. Their commander ordered them to break formation and find a landing field wherever they could. Fuel was running low. They were left to their own wits for survival. The local airfields were littered with damaged and destroyed planes. I have no knowledge of their final destinations.
Fuel oil from the damaged ships caught fire and covered the water's surface in the harbor. Fire boats were attempting to control the fires and rescue boats were trying to find survivors. Sailors who had been sleeping on top side (the top deck) were blown into the water by the explosions from the many torpedoes . Many survived, but some did not. Many of the survivors were brought to the Submarine Base and taken to a local dispensary or Naval hospital. They were literally covered with oil, some only wearing their skivvies. The victims who could still stand or walk were in such a daze, they were like zombies, not knowing or understanding what had happened to them. Some who could walk were escorted to the heads in the barracks and assisted in getting cleaned up. Our lockers were opened for them to use whatever they needed. And they needed everything. At some point, the Supply Officer ordered the General Store Keeper to issue any and all necessary clothing to the survivors. There would be no accounting for these issues under the circumstances except to say, it was an "act of war".
At approximately 1000 hours there seemed to be a lull in the attack. No one knew if it was over or if they would be back for another attack. About 1030 hours the Commissary Officer had been requested to furnish coffee, drinks, etc. to all personnel at their Duty Stations. This was a welcomed respite. The Galley was put on a "around the clock" schedule to keep food prepared as needed.
It seemed that time moved at a snail's pace and since no further attacks had happened, I was relieved of my Watch around 1430 (2:30pm) to go to chow. The usual noisy cluttering atmosphere in the Chow Hall was instead deathly silent. I set my tray on the table, placed my rifle on the floor under the bench and tried to consume the food in front of me. There was no talking. We all knew what had happened, but did not understand it. There didn't appear to be adequate words for discussing the horrors of this enemy action.
History has recorded that indeed another follow up attack had been planned, but was canceled by the Japanese Admiral in charge of the attacking forces. His decision was based on the fact that his pilots reported upon returning to their ship that the U.S. Aircraft Carriers were not in Port. He didn't know their whereabouts and feared our Carriers were now looking for him. Also, his fuel supply was running low and they were a long way from Japan, or other possible refueling depots.
Our not being aware of these factors, tension remained high. Our defenses had been severely damaged. Marines were brought in from Camps throughout the Islands and set up Battle Stations of machine gun nests. Both military and civilians remained on Alert throughout the day and that night. Curfew was put into immediate effect with total blackout. The silence was so intense that a mongoose rustling through leaves triggered occasional machine gun fire. Bullets ricocheted off the barracks and other structures. As darkness fell, Sentry Duty was ordered for the entire Base. Duty was four hours on, and four hours off until "further instructions". For identification of personnel, we were issued two cell flashlights with a piece of blue carbon paper covering the inside of the lens to defuse the light The "smoking lamp was out", meaning all smoking was prohibited because of the light they would create. The message was clear, a lighted cigarette could get you shot. The Galley, medical facilities and such requiring light had to blackout their windows and doors with blackout curtains. Doors had double curtains so that one could enter by pulling aside the first curtain which had to be closed before the second one was opened. Of the few absolutely necessary official vehicles allowed to move around after dark, their headlights were painted except for a small strip across the middle of the light and shields were attached on top of the lights to eliminate visibility from above. Five mile per hour speed limits were strictly enforced. Sentries were assigned specific areas to patrol with a loaded rifle, fixed bayonet, and muted flashlight. Total darkness and nervous sailors with loaded rifles made for a very erie situation. The feeling was and is still really indescribable.
Upon returning to my Station, my relief advised me that I was scheduled for Sentry Duty at 1600 hours, and to report to the Master-at-Arms for further instructions. After four hours on Watch, I was relieved by the next Watch and I returned to the Barracks. I stretched out on my bunk fully clothed in an attempt to try to rest for a few minutes. I was back at my Sentry Post at 2400 hours for my next four hour Watch.. Fortunately, there were no incidents. It was a very long night. Even after Watch, sleep was out of the question.
Dawn of Monday, December 8, 1941, reaffirmed the knowledge of the horrible, devastating destruction, and deadly event of the previous day. We had been severely crippled, but our Spirit was not broken. The mood was one of rather calm determination. They, the enemy, would not get away with this. In Washington, D.C. on this date, President Roosevelt, before a Joint Session of Congress deplored the action of the Japanese Imperial Navy on Sunday, December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor and ask that the Congress declare "A State of War" between the United States and Japan, Germany, and Italy, and that Sunday, December 7, 1941 was "a Day that would live on in Infamy."
Later in the day, we were given cards to be filled out to be mailed to our families. We simply checked as appropriate: "I am OK "; "I am injured and in hospital."; "Will write soon as possible." and signed the card with our name, rate, and serial number. No other comments or writing was permissible until later when censorship was implemented on all incoming and outgoing mail.
I had arrived at Pearl Harbor only two weeks prior to the attack and was awaiting Orders for Assignment. I had only enlisted in the Navy in September, 1941, had completed Basic Training in San Diego and shipped out with orders to report to Commander Submarine Pacific, Pearl Harbor TH (Territory of Hawaii) for further assignment. After the attack, I remained at Pearl under the Command of COMSUBPAC for another three months and was finally permanently assigned to the Supply Department of Submarine Squadron 4.
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