The Day the USS Oklahoma Died

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

USS Oklahoma

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 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.


We buried an old Naval veteran today.
His passing was quiet, far from that terrible affray.
He had survived and done well in his final years.
Unlike his shipmates, who perished in unfathomable fears.

They were not supposed to be in port, they should have been out on patrol.
Coming to "Pearl" for an Admiral's inspection would bring a deadly toll.
Sailors were sleeping-in, not worried about the inspection order.
"Now hear this, this is not a drill, sound general quarters."

Chaplain Schmitt was headed for church-call when the attack started.
Within eleven minutes, to his heavenly father he had departed.
He was below decks helping injured sailors make it safely out.
A place was waiting in heaven for the Padre, there is no doubt.

Father Al would be the first Chaplain to die in that world war.
Pushing injured sailors thru a hatch, "move topside" he did implore.
He could have made it out alive, if not for Navy protocol.
Senior man stays until the end, directing escape for all.

Private Joseph Lawter was on the fantail with his bugle ready to blow.
After first call, he saw something flying in, straight and low.
"Corporal of the guard, those are Jap planes flying just above the drink."
"Lawter you get paid to blow that bugle, not think."

It was too late, the first torpedo slammed into the port side.
Within minutes more would strike the Okie's tough old hide.
Too many hatches were left open in anticipation of the Admiral's inspection.
It is easy in hindsight to see the error of this fatal leadership misdirection.

The Oklahoma was senior and she should have been moored inboard.
Putting her to the outside left the Okie open to the Japanese horde.
This may have saved the Maryland from destruction on that December day.
But it left one grand old dreadnought, lying on the bottom of the bay.

The USS Oklahoma was an older battleship, from an earlier generation.
With her 14 inch guns she stood ready to defend the nation.
She had never fired a shot in anger, not even in the First World War.
Now she is on the bottom of the ocean, her big guns never again to roar.

Off Spain the Oklahoma was there to protect Americans in harm's way
In this new war she was lost to the Navy and the Nation in the opening day.
She rolled over in minutes with her keel raised to the Hawaiian sky.
429 men were trapped below, and were destined to die.

The Japanese sank the Oklahoma, a long list of crewmen they did cull.
As small boats were passing, banging was heard on her turned up hull.
Seaman Garlen Eslick and 31 others were trapped in an artificial night.
It would be 28 hours before they again saw the glow of daylight.

With hammers and chisels rescuers worked to pierce that dying ship.
No cutting torches because life from seamen's lungs it would strip.
The crewmen were dying as the water continued to rise on the Okie's inside.
Work harder, work faster they must peel away, the old girl's armored hide.

Airman "Spider" Webb had been on board the Oklahoma for just a day.
He did not know where to go, as he sprang from his rack were he lay.
He would push himself through a port hole, that's all he could do.
But the Jap's would see "Spider" again over Pacific skies of blue.

"Spider" Webb would go on to win his pilot wings of gold.
Taking on the enemy in the air, he proved to be a man of bold.
Dogfighting, he surrounded 40 Jap planes creating a moment's thrill.
But that day he upped the score for the Oklahoma, with eight aircraft kills.

The Barber brothers all joined the Navy to serve their Nation with pride.
The three shipped out on the Oklahoma standing side by side.
In the end they all would be lost, with no remains to be returned.
Leroy, Malcolm and Randolph, respect from a grateful nation you earned.

There were other brothers to serve and die on the Oklahoma that day
They all had a sad history in this new war to play.
Lost forever were the brothers; Woods, Trapp, Palmer, Blitz, and Casto.
Into heaven they ascended, as the crew of a small boat they did row.

"This is a real air raid, this is no sh__"
Not a standard shipboard broadcast, but it got the message out there quick.
Ensign Herbert Rommel returned to his guns as Zeros skimmed the bay.
But Captain Rommel would survive, to fight and win another day.

Over 1300 crewmen were assigned to the Oklahoma on that sunny morn.
Eventually taps would be sounded for 429 on a bugler's sorrowful horn.
The wounded would be pulled from the water and tended as heroes all.
The rest of the crew would be reassigned, to meet a suffering nation's call.

The Oklahoma never returned to challenge her enemy to a fair fight.
It took years at "Pearl" to right her and bring her deck into the light.
She was sold off as scrap after they pulled from her, those big guns.
The USS Oklahoma was finally lost, sunken under tow in the Pacific sun.

We must remember the Oklahoma, for the crew their time is running out.
It must be marked in stone, to be preserved in a military redoubt.
Ford Island will be the home to a memorial that will stand the test of time.
For the Naval veteran he can visit and say "I was there, she was mine."

We buried an old Naval veteran today.
This one, a shipmate who had seen that tragic December day.
But he survived to meet his nation's demand, to seek justice for all.
He fought hard for his nation, and now takes his final military call.


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Copyright 2006 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.