Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pearl Harbor 70 Years Ago: A sailor's first-hand account of that infamous day

My dad Frank Dolan, a weldor on the repair ship USS Vestal, which was tied alongside the battleship USS Arizona, remembered the events that unfolded at Pearl Harbor on this date in 1941 like this...
Sunday was "holiday routine"… a no-work day. The officers and men would ‘sleep-in,’ but not me. I was eager to get my ratings. So, after morning chow, I went to the foc’sle… which was an upper deck in the forward part of the ship, to do my studying… Noise! A loud noise! A loud, booming noise came! Then came the roar of airplanes. I looked over the starboard (right) side of the ship and saw planes—many planes. Some were overhead, but many were just a few feet above the water. They were launching what I thought were “dummy” torpedoes. "Neat, real neat!" I thought. But when the first one exploded against a battleship’s side, I thought some dumb American pilot dropped a real live torpedo by accident.

Even as torpedoes were exploding on impact against the sides of the battleships, I told myself there must be some mistake. The planes were so close we could easily see the pilots. Then the red ball designation of the Japanese on the sides of the planes came into view. Immediately I was off the foc’csle down the port passageway aft on the main deck and onto the starboard side to watch. Again, I was not really believing what I was witnessing. More torpedo planes, and then came the dive bombers. I had no battle station as at this time we were at peace with Japan, and had only one 3-inch anti-aircraft gun, and a couple of Thompson machine guns on board. Our 5-inch broadside guns were for use against surface craft.
My next move was to head for the weld shop. To get there I had to go down a ladder through the carpenter shop and then amidships to the weld shop. No sooner had I got down the ladder when a bomb came through the carpenter shop hitting the ladder I had just come down. There were numerous casualties in the carpenter shop. One shipmate was decapitated. Immediately, I went to the weld shop. Half of the men there had been sleeping or were just awakening and were asking, "What was up?" The other men and I told them the Japs were here. I looked toward the small hatch opening that I had just come through to get to our shop. "Ski," a shipmate, had just come into the shop looking very pale and wobbly. We grabbed him and laid him on a cot, face-down, as we discovered that both cheeks of his backside were torn off and hardly any flesh remained. This was the result of the bomb that had come through the carpenter shop. In the meantime, another bomb hit the forward part of our ship on the starboard side near where I had been studying a few minutes earlier.
USS Arizona burning
Dad recalled that at about the time the second bomb hit the forward part of the Vestal, on the starboard side near where he had been studying a few minutes earlier, was when the Arizona exploded. While he was below decks at that moment, he did not then know what had happened, although it was a “shaking experience” for him. “When the Arizona blew up and was broken in two, my first thought from below deck was that our acetylene and oxygen cylinders, which were topside and near the great explosion, had blown up. Soon afterward, we learned that it was the Arizona. And, later on, with all of the burned survivors, we knew for sure what had happened.”

When the Arizona exploded, more than 100 sailors on the Vestal were blown overboard into the flaming, oil-covered water. Amazingly, of the 400 men on the Vestal, only 6 were lost, although many were seriously injured. Among the many deeds of brave men, the Vestal’s captain, Cassin Young, received the medal of honor for his courageous actions that day. Having been blown overboard himself, Young swam back to ship and retook command, calling his men back to their battle stations. To prevent the loss of his ship, Commander Young ran his Vestal aground on a coral reef at Aiea. Young would become 1 of 5 men to receive the Medal of Honor for bravery this day.

The losses to the Arizona were horrific. More than 1,100 Sailors and Marines still lie entombed within its sunken hull. Over 50 Sailors lie within the submerged Utah.

Dad recounted his experience of this “date which will live in infamy” in his narrative, Pearl Harbor: As I Remember.


USS Vestal burning and severely damaged but later repaired

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A profound experience from my childhood was to personally meet Captian Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese commander who led the first attack wave on Pearl Harbor, and who immortalized the words, Tora, Tora, Tora. When I was about 10, my dad insisted that I go with him to a Youth for Christ meeting in San Diego, where this remarkable man and former enemy of the United States was speaking. Years after the Pearl Harbor attack, Fuchida became a Christian in a remarkable conversion to Christ. I wrote about the experience in the post, Meeting God's Samurai.

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