USS UTAH  BB-31 / AG-16

The Forgotten Ship of Pearl Harbor

USS Utah Survivor Report

Clark Simmons, Mess Attendant 3/c

Excerpt from a Daniel Martinez interview with Clark Simmons on December 7, 1998.

DM: Well, let’s go to the morning of December seventh. You get back, Cinderella liberty. It must have been a grand sight, seeing those battleships and all of that, being involved with the navy. That navy was a great big navy.

CS: Yes.

DM: Was there a sense of pride, even as a sailor, seeing those ships?

CS: Yes, well, as I said, my motivation, one of my motivation, was, you know, getting on a midshipman cruise and being in a great wide fleet and, you know, sailing around the world.

DM: Right.

CS: And just to see these ships. And I was sort of disappointed when I got assigned to the Utah. This was not the fleet. This was the base force.

DM: Right.

CS: But I learned to love it because of, you know, the things that it was doing and the way that you…

DM: It gave you other opportunities.

CS: Yeah, other opportunities. But the Utah was beautiful duty.

DM: Yeah. On the morning of December seventh, what time did you get up that morning?

CS: Well, I was off that whole weekend.

DM: Right.

CS: I was part of the ward room crew, but I was off that day. And one of the fellows, that Sunday morning, I had gone to shore that Saturday, shopped, came back and had dinner and then went back on the beach again. And so I got back, you know, usually Cinderella liberty and a fellow came down and says, “The ship in front of us just blew up,” that morning. He was talking about the Raleigh. And actually what had happened, I think they found out that a torpedo had gone through…

DM: Right.

CS: …into the Utah.

DM: So that morning, you guys were just ordinary (inaudible)

CS: Laying down, you know, relaxing that Sunday morning.

DM: Did you hear an explosion at all?

CS: And I…we ran to the port to look out and I actually saw one of the Japanese planes come in, release the torpedo, dip his wing and straighten up and the torpedo headed for the Utah. Then I felt the…

DM: Reverberation?

CS: Reverberation.

DM: So the ship shook.

CS: Shook.

DM: Where did you think she hit?

CS: It was someplace forward…

DM: Okay.

CS: …of where we were. You know, we were like mid-ship.

DM: Did you think what the heck is going on?

CS: Well, had no idea what was going on.

DM: Okay.

CS: So I took off going up to the officer’s country where I knew there were life jackets and there’s a way of getting off the ship.

DM: General quarters sounds (inaudible).

CS: Well, at that time, the bugler was blowing abandon ship and there was no P.A. system, you know. Only the boatswain mate was everything.

DM: Was the ship listing?

CS: It had begun to list so the chief engineer, the communication officer, Sol Isquith, who was a senior officer aboard, a lieutenant commander, and Lieutenant Windsor, who was the communication officer, and myself, we went into the captain’s cabin. And each one of us had a life preserver, this old kapok life preserver.

DM: Right. CS: Which, thank god, we did.

DM: Life jacket on, right.

CS: We didn’t put ‘em on.

DM: You didn’t.

CS: ‘Cause had we put them on, these big ports, which was eighteen inches in circumference…

DM: Right.

CS: …we wouldn’t have been able to get through the port.

DM: Well tell me, then now the ship got hit twice. Did you feel that second torpedo hit?

CS: I didn’t feel the second, only one.

DM: There was just too much happening. 

CS: But the ship was beginning to list. And everything was…

DM: That must have been a frightening feeling.

CS: It was. Everything was beginning to break loose and everything else. So we got – each one of us took a port, thank god.

DM: You mean you went over with the ship?

CS: No, just as we went out the port, the lines were getting to part and I got on it and then jumped into the water and swam to Fox Eleven.

DM: Okay. So which side did you abandon ship on? The ship’s listing this way. Did you abandon on the port side?

CS: On the [starboard] side. ‘Cause she listed to the [port] side.

DM: Okay.

CS: On the [starboard] side and went, I swam to the Fox Eleven and then after I saw what was happening, I then headed for Ford Island.

DM: Now, you didn’t have your life preserver on?

CS: No, I left that in the cabin.

DM: You left that behind. There was a lot of sailors in the water I understand.

CS: There were a lot in the water. Then some of the boats were in the water.

DM: Planes everywhere?

CS: And planes. They were strafing.

DM: The water?

CS: Yes, the ships and the water. And when I got to the beach, I was bleeding in the head, in the shoulder and everything else. And luckily, one…

DM: What had happened? 

CS: I don’t know whether I was hit with shrapnel or hit with a bullet. You know and I don’t know when I was hit. But when I got there, you know that trench they were…

DM: Yeah, there was a trench…

CS: They were trenching…

DM: …they were laying some…

CS: The pipe, water lines… DM: …pipe and a lot of Utah guys jumped in there.

CS: Yeah, we jumped into that. So one of the pharmacist’s mate which had brought his gear with him and he said, “You’re bleeding.” And he began to…

DM: And you didn’t know you were bleeding.

CS: I didn’t know I was bleeding.

DM: Now did you receive the Purple Heart?

CS: I received the Purple Heart [medal].

DM: Seeing your ship sink for a sailor is a tough thing. Was that tough for you to see her go or…

CS: Well, first, I didn’t realize what was happening.

DM: It didn’t seem real?

CS: It just didn’t seem…you know, it was a bit of shock. You’re seeing these planes and then word passed that these were Japanese planes. We’re being attacked by the Japanese and they’re diving on us. And you’re seeing the machine gun.

DM: Right.

CS: And the Raleigh and the Detroit, they began to fire all over the island.

DM: You could hear the gunfire from the other…

CS: Gunfire from all over. And you’re in a state of shock. You don’t know what’s…

DM: Were you scared at all during this?

CS: Yes. And it was…you just didn’t know what was happening.

DM: Now you were, what, twenty?

CS: I was twenty at the time.

DM: And were there other African Americans that got off with you?

CS: Yes. There was…some of ‘em was picked up in the boat and some of ‘em like me, they swam to the…

DM: Did you have any problems swimming?

CS: No. None whatsoever. I don’t know, maybe I walked on water, but I know it didn’t take me long.

DM: So even though Doris Miller passed your swim test, you passed your swim test that day.

CS: Oh yes. Oh, after that, I…

DM: You got to be a pretty good swimmer, you said. Were there any mess attendants killed on your ship?

CS: Yes. We lost one fellow by the name of Smith.

DM: Did you know him?

CS: Yes, I knew Smith, a fellow from North Carolina.

DM: What kind of guy was Smith?

CS: He was a very aggressive sort of fellow.

DM: In what nature?

CS: In the fact that he aimed to please. He was going to make the navy his career.

DM: That was going to be his home?

CS: That was going to be his home.

DM: Was that your goal?

CS: No, I don’t…

DM: You were just going to see how it goes along?

CS: How it goes along. But I thought I would do a hitch and extension and that would be it.

DM: Do you know what maybe happened to Smith?

CS: I understand from fellows who was on the barrel, that he was machine gun, that he had bullet holes in his chest.

DM: And he – that happened on the ship or in the water?

CS: I don’t know. I don’t know whether he went out on the quarterdeck and when they were strafing he got it, but they found his body and they buried him up in Punchbowl.

DM: In Halawa Valley and later in Punchbowl?

CS: Punchbowl.

DM: The ship goes over, your guys are in the trench. Did you remain there the entire time of the raid?

CS: No…for the raid, yes. And then the pharmacist’s mate got me over to the submarine base hospital. And for some reason, I stayed there – I really don’t know – that Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, but that Wednesday, I’m in the hospital and the radio is on and they begin to talk about the damage that was done and I went into shock. I would get warm; I’d get cold. And so then the ship service officers was checking to see how many of the Utah sailors were dead. And I told him to get me the hell out of here. I said, “I don’t care what ship, just get me off of this island.” And we had been friendly.

DM: Yeah.

CS: So they said, “Well, I’ll see what I can do.” And so the Lamson came in and he says, “I got a ship for you.”

DM: The Lamson?

CS: The Lamson.

DM: What kind of ship was she?

CS: A destroyer, 367. And…

DM: Did you serve on her for some time?

CS: I served on her until 1943. (Conversation off-mike.)

DM: Okay, Mr. Simmons, there’s so much more I wanted to ask you, but I’ll wrap this. We’ll talk about maybe a possibility of doing more. I know you have more things you have to do while you’re here, but let me give you the opportunity to talk about, I guess, what all of this meant, being an Afri—first of all, I want to ask you about your medal. What is that medal that you have around your neck?

CS: This is the Congressional medal for Pearl Harbor survivors, which I’m very disappointed with.

DM: Why is that?

CS: Why, because Congress authorized this medal for the Pearl Harbor survivors.

DM: Right.

CS: But they failed to do a resolution saying what the medal meant and why they were awarding this medal to the Pearl Harbor survivors. DM: What would you have liked them to say?

CS: I’d like for them to have said this was something that was a special day, that these are the people that was in Pearl Harbor or in the Territory of Hawaii on December 7, 1941 and for that services and for survivors and everything else. This is a medal that Congress saw fit to give them, a grateful country.

DM: And what did they do? What…

CS: Nothing. They authorized the medal.

DM: And you kind of picked ‘em up right?

CS: And then they sent ‘em to the district and said give them to people who are qualified to have them. Which I think is – it’s really, it was just so, shit, it wasn’t even professional. (Conversation off-mike.)

DM: …African-American, what this all meant.

CS: Well.

DM: During this time.

CS: I think being in a segregated navy, a very…

DM: Segregated navy.

CS: …segregated navy taught me a lot. Not only how to deal with people, but it taught me, you know, that life is very short and there are more important things than life than just dollars and cents. And it’s the respect that you get from your fellow man in dealing with your family and taking care of them.  And one of the things I’m proud of is a lot of the Pearl Harbor survivors who went on in their professional life, either they stayed in the service or they went into civilian life and they made a success.

DM: Whether they were White or Black.

CS: Whether they were White or Black, they made a success out of it and just like today is our second birthday. I feel that…

DM: Oh, this fifty-seventh anniversary.

CS: Fifty-seventh anniversary and everything.

DM: Well, Mr. Simmons, I’d like to thank you for this interview and hope that we have an opportunity maybe to do one in the future, to talk about more in depth subjects about this segregation and what happened to you for the rest of the war and after you were out of the military.

CS: I had a very full life and I can thank the navy for a lot of it. It prepared me for the things that I had to encounter.

DM: Well, thank you very much.

CS: Thank you.