ENID, Okla. — Editor’s note: This column was first published Dec. 7, 2003.
They were so young, just kids really, serving their country in an exotic tropical paradise in the middle of the Pacific.
They heard the rumbles of war, the grim news from Europe and the Far East. They knew of Hitler’s blitzkrieg across the continent and the relentless bombing of London. They were aware of Japan’s escalating hostilities with China.
They were part of a fighting force, they knew, the cutting edge of American power in the Pacific. There were warnings of war, but it was difficult to think about war while basking in the warm Hawaiian sun.
They were so young, just kids, really, from small towns, who never dreamed they’d get the chance to dip a toe in the waters off Waikiki.
It was early on a Sunday morning, normally a quiet day at the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor.
Some sailors were getting ready for church, others were spending as much time in the sack as they could manage. It was 7:55 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941.
“The sound of a voice on the ship’s loudspeaker, unmistakably different from the usual announcements, brought me quickly awake. ‘Air raid! Air raid! This is a real attack, real planes, real bombs,’ followed by an obscenity, crackled from the loudspeaker,” said Adolph Mortensen in a remembrance posted on the “Pearl Harbor Remembered” Web site.
Mortensen was just 25, a junior officer on the battleship USS Oklahoma.
Mortensen, clad only in pajama bottoms, leaped from his bunk and tried to get to his battle station in the big ship’s boiler room. As he ran, the deck bucked from the explosion of torpedoes hitting the Oklahoma. Suddenly came an order to abandon ship.
The big ship began to list badly. Mortensen tried to get to a compartment with large portholes through which he could escape. Suddenly the Oklahoma rolled over. Mortensen was propelled into the ship’s dispensary.
He was in an air pocket with four other men. With his feet, he found a porthole below the water. He ducked under the surface and opened the 11-inch porthole. Two men escaped easily. The third was reluctant, but Mortensen pushed his head through the porthole and the man pulled himself the rest of the way.
That left Mortensen and the ship’s carpenter, a man named Austin, a large man wearing more than 200 pounds.
“He reached down and held the porthole open for me,” said Mortensen. “I tried to take a deep breath, but the oxygen supply was about gone. As I went out, I scraped my hips squeezing through. I think that is where I lost my pajamas. Mr. Austin couldn’t get out. His was the most noble and heroic act a man could perform, knowing full well that his minutes were few.”
Naked as the day he was born, Mortensen swam through the oil-covered surface of the harbor. He would die, but not this day. He died suddenly in November 2000.
They were so young, just kids really.
George Phraner was a young aviation machinist’s mate on the USS Arizona. He had just finished breakfast and walked out to get a little air. Just then he heard a noise and walked outside, only to see airplanes, then smoke rising from Ford Island, where the battleships were moored.
“It didn’t mean anything to us until a large group of planes came near the ship and we could see for the first time the rising sun emblem on the plane wings,” he said in a Web remembrance.
Phraner’s battle station was the ship’s forward, five-inch gun. Phraner was sent below to bring up ammunition. The aft magazines were five decks below.
He was lifting 90-pound shells into the hoist to lift them to the deck when there came a roar, and the ship shuddered. The forward magazine had exploded.
“Only moments before, I stood with my gun crew just a few feet from the center of the explosion,” Phraner said. The rest of his crew was killed.
Smoke immediately began to fill the aft magazine. Phraner found his way out of the magazine and began to climb the ladder. Immediately he was struck with the smell of burning flesh. It was his, burned by the hot ladder. He climbed amid the sounds of moaning and falling bodies, fighting to breathe through thick smoke. He was about to give up.
“I felt that it was all right for me to let go. At that moment I looked up and could see a small point of light through the smoke. It gave me the strength to go on,” he said.
He reached the deck to see his ship engulfed in flames. The deck was covered with bodies. He jumped off the ship and swam to shore.
They were so young, just kids really. Their sacrifices will never be forgotten.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.