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Irvin’s Story: Standing by the Oklahoma

I got temporary duty to the mine school. It was for two months, and then I was to report back to the Oklahoma. That was my key toward getting over to the Asiatic Fleet. This was November 1941. I stayed at the mine school barracks right by the submarine base. To me, those were beautiful barracks with neat rows of bunk beds. The barracks were right above the mess hall. There must have been fifty guys in the school. We were in class about eight hours a day.

The Oklahoma was in the harbor part of the time, so I took a launch out on Sundays to see the guys a couple of times. On the weekends we would go to Honolulu. We’d drink a few beers, look at the girls and wander around. I was living in hog heaven. I thought to myself, going to mine school was an excellent decision.

We had the idea that war was imminent. We knew what was going on in Europe. But, you know, when you’re seventeen years old you don’t think anything is going to happen the next day. We didn’t have training for war. In boot camp it was all, “hip, two, three, four” – marching and hand-washing our clothes and tying knots.

On December 7, 1941, I bailed out of bed pretty early. It was almost like any other day except it was a Sunday. So I leisurely took a shower, then I headed down the stairs and into the mess hall. Other guys were up. There were quite a few in the mess hall. After I got done eating about a quarter of eight, I started outside. I stood there looking around; it was a beautiful morning. No clouds, just a beautiful day to be in Hawaii.

Then all of a sudden I heard this machine gun fire going off. This plane came right over the barracks and let off quite a row of bullets. We just stood there in amazement at first. We couldn’t believe this was happening. I looked up and saw those big red meatballs on the wings.

“Hell, that’s Japs!”

All hell broke loose. Someone hollered, “Let’s get to the armory.”

So we all ran down to the armory. They had to cut the locks off to get the guns, and then they quickly passed out weapons. They gave us 30-06 rifles; the same gun I practiced shooting in boot camp. We grabbed belt line bandoliers with ammo on them. These 30-06s even had bayonets on them. It’s a powerful rifle, but it’s a bolt action. You can only get off one round at a time.

I ran back over to the dock because I saw these Japanese torpedo planes coming up the channel. I went to the edge of the dock and there were several submarines right there. The subs had machine guns on deck and they were cutting loose on these torpedo planes as they came over.

Those Japanese pilots, I could see their faces as they flew over me. They were that close, strafing with machine guns all over the place. The bullets were tearing up the grass fifty feet from us. Some of these planes had three guns on each wing. That’s six machine guns going off at once; that’s a pretty good pile of strafing. Of course, we were trying to knock them down. I fired round after round as fast as I could. We popped a few holes in those planes with our rifles; we could hardly miss, they flew right over us. Planes were coming in pairs, just like a swarm of bees. Then the light bombers came after them.

Getting killed didn’t even cross my mind. I wanted to kill the Japanese, though. I was so angry at what I was seeing, watching the battleships get hit. I saw the bomber that came down on the Arizona. The Arizona was pretty well intact up to this point. I watched that sucker fly over the Arizona and that bomb just dropped down. I thought it was going to go down the smoke stack. Some people say it landed forward of the smoke stack. I still think the bomb went down the stack. When it hit and blew up down below, it must have been in the ammo locker, where the powder was. It looked like the whole ship just rose up out of the water and shook. Smoke everywhere. That bomb put the Arizona down and killed a lot of guys.

The stern of the Pelias, that’s a submarine tender, was facing outboard, toward the channel. They had a 4”/50 caliber gun mounted on deck, which is a pretty heavy weapon. The Pelias cut loose with that 4”/50 and hit this torpedo plane right in the engine. The plane looked like it just stopped dead in midair. Then it dropped straight down into the water. Torpedo and all, thank goodness. He didn’t have a chance to drop that torpedo.

Through the smoke I saw the Oklahoma lying there on her side, flipped practically upside down. I didn’t see it happen, but I could see she was rolled over. I thought, my God, how many guys are in there? How many are trapped? There were fires burning and smoke was everywhere. I saw Hickham airbase being hit hard. I was firing at the planes flying over Hickham and this fellow said to me, “You’re not going to hit anything.”

“Maybe you’re right, but it makes me feel better to keep firing at them.” I got rid of quite a bit of ammunition. But I didn’t run out. I had a whole belt full of ammunition. I stayed right there on the dock during the whole attack. We fired for a couple of hours, off and on. Then word came out that the Japanese were invading, landing. The word just went up and down the line, so we put our bayonets on and got ready for combat. Of course, that didn’t happen, thank goodness.

Finally, the planes stopped coming. There was nobody really in charge. People were just running around. Then I heard they wanted gun crews up high on this building near the barracks. They had mounted machine guns up there on the top deck of this building. So, I went up there and stayed all day.

Everything was a disaster. From up on top of this building I could see everything that was going on all day. Motor launches were going around picking guys out of the water. The water was covered with oil. They brought some guys who were still alive back to the sub base. They all needed dry clothes. I went down and pulled clothes out of my locker and put them in the pile. Then I went back up on that building.

It was just mass confusion for awhile. We didn’t know if the enemy was coming in again. The day finally wore into the evening. Motor launches were out there all night picking up guys, dead and alive, out of the water. We were there on top of that building through the night until the next morning. Everybody was awake. Nobody could sleep. Our nerves were wound up tighter than drums.

The next morning word came along that they needed a working party to go out to the Oklahoma. Of course, I volunteered. There were maybe eight or ten of us that climbed into this launch. And I was still in whites, my dress whites, if you can imagine. We started out and I could see all the carnage. There were still bodies in different places, washed up here and there. People were out in launches, anything that would float, picking up bodies. There was smoke all over the place. The Arizona was still belching fumes.

We got out to the Oklahoma and we climbed up on the belly of the ship. We handled air lines to help these guys who were standing on the Oklahoma, trying to cut out the trapped men. They were using cutting torches and chipping guns. There was this big Hawaiian out there with muscles as big as suitcases. He worked in the shipyards. He was trying to cut these guys out. I’ll never forget him, watching him work like a demon trying to save those guys. They had plans laid out, drawings of the ship. But, I don’t know how much good those were. We went by sounds. We’d hear tapping – tap, tap, tap.

“Here’s a sound over here!”

We’d rush over there and tap on the hull, and someone would tap back from inside. So, that’s where we would start cutting. It was terrible; you could hear them down below. In some spots where we cut through, a blast of air would come out and the guys would holler, “Quit cutting, quit cutting!” As soon as the pressure was released through the hole, it let water come in. It was just horrendous. It tore my heart out.

I helped pull out three or four guys. I think, altogether, about thirty guys were pulled out from the ship. I did this all day, until evening. I don’t remember being tired, even though I hadn’t slept in about thirty-six hours. It was my birthday. My eighteenth birthday. I was so busy all day I don’t think it even occurred to me that it was my birthday. My whole world was upside down. In the evening they cut us loose and told us to go back to the barracks at the sub base. I don’t think I’d eaten anything since the day before at breakfast.

I’ll never in my life forget that day standing there on the Oklahoma. I’ll carry it with me to my grave. It’s stuck with me all these years. I can still hear those guys down there tapping. More than 400 guys died on the Oklahoma. It was heartbreaking. It was a lucky decision on my part to put in for the mine school and get off that ship.

I thought about the leading seaman who helped me get into mine school. He went down with the Oklahoma. It was heart-shaking. It took me a long time to learn to live with that. It took me twenty years, probably, before I could think about that time without it ripping me up. I’d wake up at night with bad dreams for years. I wasn’t the only one. Others who survived felt the same way. I was a lucky survivor. I wondered, why me? Why was I spared? It’s the way fate is. At times I felt guilty for surviving. I couldn’t run around jumping for joy about surviving, not after all those other guys died. They weren’t lucky like me. I saw more action in three or four hours than some people did in the whole war. I saw enough killing to last a lifetime at Pearl Harbor. That was my baptism in the fire of war.

From the book, Just Do It, Crazy of Not; the life story of 30 year Navy veteran Irvin Hornkohl, by Mary Penner and Irvin Hornkohl.