The Day the USS Oklahoma Died
Almost everyone knows about the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by the air and naval forces of the Empire of Japan. Even today's school age children are taught some limited history about that battle.
And, of course, there is the most famous battleship in US Naval history still lying on the ocean bottom at Pearl, the USS Arizona. The US Park Service has a wonderful floating memorial positioned directly over the Arizona. You can take a navy launch out to the sight and look down into the water and see the top of that ship. I have made that sad boat ride a number of times in my life.
But there were other battleships damaged that day. In fact there were nine battleships attacked by the Japanese. Three never returned to naval service; the USS Arizona, the USS Utah and the USS Oklahoma.
There is a memorial of some kind for eight of the nine battleships to include the six that continued to fight during WW II, but there is no memorial for the USS Oklahoma. The Oklahoma took nine torpedoes in her side as she lay tied up at Pearl Harbor and rolled over with her keel sticking out of the water in eleven minutes.
The Oklahoma had a ship's complement of 2166 Navy and Marine officers and enlisted men. 429 officers and crew died as a result of the attack, but not all at the same time. When the Oklahoma rolled over men were trapped alive in an upside down world of total panic and chaos. It was Sunday morning and the crew of the USS Oklahoma, were known for their nights on the town. The ship was actually supposed to still be out to sea patrolling in a circle around the Hawaiian Islands. But along with all nine of the battleships, the Oklahoma was advised that there was to be an admiral's inspection on Monday, 8 December. So the Oklahoma crew was on shore leave Saturday night, the 6th of December, knowing that on Sunday they had a full day of work getting the ship ready for the admiral's visit.
When the attack started around 8:00 am Sunday morning many of the crew were sleeping it off in their racks below decks and never made it up to the main deck before the ship rolled over. Father Aloysius Schmitt was conducting church call when battle stations sounded and the men were told "this is no drill." His assigned position was below decks at a dressing station where he could tend to wounded sailors. He would die while trying to help an injured sailor get through an open hatch. Father Schmitt would become the first military Chaplin killed in WW II. He could have made it out but navy protocol dictates, "the senior man is the last to leave" and he was assisting junior sailors scrambling to safety when the ship rolled over.
Men trapped inside started banging on the bulkhead trying to get the attention of passing small boats. On the 8th and 9th of December after cutting holes in the exposed bottom of the Oklahoma, 32 men were pulled out alive. Banging continued through the 10th of December but nothing could be done. The sound was coming from below the water line and the sailors standing watch over the Oklahoma could only wait and listen until the banging stopped and the trapped sailors suffocated.
The three Barber brothers, Leroy, Randolph and Malcom, who joined the Navy together in 1940, were all assigned to the Oklahoma and died, never to be returned home for burial. Four hundred bodies were recovered but only 35 could actually be positively identified.
Most of the remains were buried in a mass grave at the Punch Bowl National Cemetery in Hawaii, with no markings of the crew member's names to tell who might be interned there. Through the efforts of Kevin King of Oklahoma City a stone marker now identifies the grave site as the resting place of USS Oklahoma crew members.
For more information about the USS Oklahoma go to www.ussoklahoma.com and read about history of the ship and the men who last served onboard. The sound track with aircraft attacking, waves lapping and the banging on the hull of the Oklahoma by trapped, dying men brings this history straight to you. Also, because of a five year effort of Mr. King, a memorial has finally been planned, to be constructed at Pearl Harbor. Mr. King has crisscrossed the country flying and driving at his own expense to meet and record the history of surviving members of the Oklahoma. He has attended ship's reunions to capture the history directly from the sailors who were there on December 7th. He has flown to Hawaii six times meeting with Navy, Marine and US Park personnel trying to move the memorial project long, but in the meantime we keep losing Oklahoma survivors. There are about 100 crew members still alive, but every year that total gets smaller.
Mr. King has taken in hundreds of photos lent to him by sailors and marines who survived as well as photos of men who did not survive, that family members have contributed. He is painstakingly recording and preserving these images. Many are already on the above web site.
The war did not stop for the USS Oklahoma crew members who were able to swim away in the oiled filled, burning waters of Pearl Harbor. The sailors and marines who survived the attack went on to be assigned to other ships, to fight and in some cases die in combat engagements.
The dedication ceremony is scheduled for 7 December 2007 at a site on Ford Island near where the Oklahoma capsized. USS Oklahoma Memorial, PO Box 7734, Edmond, OK 73083-7734 is the address you can send your support. We must remember the USS Oklahoma and her lost crew members.
THE USS OKLAHOMA VETERAN
We buried an old Naval veteran today.
They were not supposed to be in port, they should have been out on patrol.
Chaplain Schmitt was headed for church-call when the attack started.
Father Al would be the first Chaplain to die in that world war.
Private Joseph Lawter was on the fantail with his bugle ready to blow.
It was too late, the first torpedo slammed into the port side.
The Oklahoma was senior and she should have been moored inboard.
The USS Oklahoma was an older battleship, from an earlier generation.
Off Spain the Oklahoma was there to protect Americans in harm's way
The Japanese sank the Oklahoma, a long list of crewmen they did cull.
With hammers and chisels rescuers worked to pierce that dying ship.
Airman "Spider" Webb had been on board the Oklahoma for just a day.
"Spider" Webb would go on to win his pilot wings of gold.
The Barber brothers all joined the Navy to serve their Nation with pride.
There were other brothers to serve and die on the Oklahoma that day
"This is a real air raid, this is no sh__"
Over 1300 crewmen were assigned to the Oklahoma on that sunny morn.
The Oklahoma never returned to challenge her enemy to a fair fight.
We must remember the Oklahoma, for the crew their time is running out.
We buried an old Naval veteran today.
WE BURIED AN OLD NAVAL VETERAN TODAY.
Copyright 2006 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.