My son joined the Navy in 1989. In 1991, the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I asked my uncle — who had been there — to write a memoir of the event for my son. This is what my uncle had to say about December 7, 1941.
written by Carroll Joseph Oliver, USN, Retired (The Oliver family lived in Haddonfield, New Jersey; “Uncle Ollie” was born October 10, 1919.)
I enlised in the Navy on February 1, 1937. I was 18 years old. I was trained to be a shipfitter and the first ship I was stationed on was the West Virginia. I was then transferred to the Pennsylvania.
December 7 began like any other Sunday morning: I got up, showered, dressed, ate breakfast and left my ship, the Pennsylvania, for the Block Recreation Center, where we were going to hear Mass. When I got there, the stage was set up for Mass. Suddenly the Chaplain ran out onto the stage and hollered that everyone should immediately return to their ship or station. We didn’t know what was going on, and I hung around for a few minutes before going outside. When I got outside, I could see the Jap planes coming over from Hickam Field. They were strafing everyone who was running back towards the Fleet Landing and Receiving Station. I waited a few minutes, then started running myself. Excuse the comparison, but Jesse Owens would be put to shame the way I ran. I passed quite a few sailors, their white uniforms torn and bloody, lying dead on the sidewalk. I saw men with all different types of guns on the roof of the Receiving Station firing away at the oncoming planes. I somehow made it to the Receiving Station and to the officer’s living area (where the officers had their homes). This whole area had been bombed, and I thought a few bombs had been dropped right in front of the admiral’s house.
I crawled into a large storm pipe (the pipe that carried away run-off rain water) that extended on either side of the drive that circled the area. I kept crawling through this pipe to the end and saw Mr. Ensign Arnold, who was an officer on the Pennsy. I have to laugh about it now, because the situation was so desperate, and there he was with the back seam of his khaki pants split open. He and I continued running towards the Pennsy. Our ship was in dry dock. At this point, the air around the harbor was actually black from the shots being fired at the enemy planes. In the harbor itself, I could see the USS Oklahome turning over, with her bottom pointed towards the sky.
When I got to the Pennsy, I immediately reported to my battle station which was under the armoured deck. I believe the deck itself was about six inches thick. Before I had gotten back to the ship, the Pennsy had been hit with a 500 pound aerial bomb, killing many of my shipmates. Repairs began immediately and we had to bypass the broken piping. This was necessary becuse the bomb had severed all the pipes that had supplied the Pennsy with water. Our repair officer gave me and three other shipfitters orders to make immediate arrangements to place submersible pumps out and over the caisson to get water for fire fighting, machinery, guns, etc.
Because there had been a change of plans, the Pennsy was moved out of dry dock, and the USS Cassin and USS Downs were placed forward in the dry dock and then they put the Pennsy back in. The two destroyers who were with us (Cassin and Downs) as well as the Pennsy were back up on blocks. I myself think this move saved the Pennsy, because after being in dry dock the Pennsy would have been moved back over to Battleship Row on December 6.
While we worked frantically making repairs, the hospital corpsmen were removing the dead and taking care of the wounded. It was a scene straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Lt. Commander Craig was the head of my repair department. I believe he was the only officer from the Pennsy killed on December 7. When the attack began, he was on the dry dock wall checking the utilities: steam, water and air. All three of these are needed for the machinery, etc. on board the ship. Fresh water and harbor water were much needed for fire fighting. That was the purpose of our going on the dry dock caisson: to get water aboard.
Hours later, when we finally did secure from general quarters, I returned to my living space and locker, still wearing my whites. You can imagine what condition they were in. If I remember correctly, I threw them away. My most vivid memory of the attack was the condition of our living space. There had been many dead and wounded in a collecting station nearby, and the angle iron (similar to a baseboard) caused all the blood to drain onto the deck of our living space. There must have been two inches of blood on the deck. I was then a young man at the time and my appetite was gone for quite a few days afterwards. To this day I cannot erase that scene from my memory. I knew everyone from the Pennsy who was killed on December 7, but on board ship you go ashore with other men from the same division.
This may sound funny, but believe me, at the time I jumped about ten feet in the air. In our ship area we kept our bedding and cots in what the Navy calls ‘hammock netting.’ In some division, they were outboard in the living compartments and they just dropped canvas over them, but in the shipfitter’s shop, ours were heavy galvanized metal. Someone went to get his bedding and cot and dropped the cover. It sounded like another bomb going off and everyone in the area was ready for general quarters all over again.
We got the Pennsy squared away in just a few weeks and left for San Francisco. When we arrived in San Francisco, I believe it was New Year’s Eve. I left the Pennsy in 1943 after being in the Aleutian Islands. The Bering Sea surrounding the Aleutian Islands is the roughest water I’ve ever sailed on.
The bell from the Pennsy was on display and the ship’s silverware was used for the Officer’s Ward Room Mess on the new Pennsy, which is a nuke sub. The ship’s bell from the USS Cassin is in the Navy Reserve Building in the shipyard at Philadelphia. Both of these destroyers were scrpped after they salvaged what could be used on other ships like them or in the same class.