USS UTAH BB-31 / AG-16
The Forgotten Ship of Pearl Harbor
Reprinted from Naval History with permission; Copyright © 2008 U.S. Naval Institute/www.usni.org.
Donald A. Green
'Nowhere to Go but Down'
The world turns upside down in an eyewitness account by a 22-year-old seaman first class on board the USS Utah during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
By Donald A. Green
Miscellaneous Auxiliary was the old bucket's title. For the USS Utah (AG-16, ex-BB-31), that meant target vessel. The Navy had long ago stripped the former first-class battleship of her BB designation, scrapped her 12-inch guns, and slapped the AG label on her official correspondence. The Sailors who rode her didn't particularly like or dislike target duty, but being one while sitting in port seemed a bit unsportsmanlike.
The day was a Sunday. The date was the 7th, in the month of December 1941.
The first explosion slammed all 21,825 tons of the Utah 15 feet to starboard smack into her cement mooring. All the 30-year-old veteran vessel from the days of President William Howard Taft did was "harrumph," wake up long enough to squish back into her bed, and fall asleep again, rocking gently against the straining lines that held her to the pilings.
Two decks below the main deck, the blast rolled unstopped through wide-open passageways. It reached compartment 3C just as I had lifted one leg to jam through my baseball pants. As it turned out, I wasn't the only one standing on one foot when the blast came. When the old wagon's red-leaded rump finally wallowed to a stop, ten of the Utah's finest were stacked at the bottom brace of the up ladder. Lying on our backs, we must have looked like a bunch of dirty laundry thrown into the corner with a gathering of legs. I was front and center and on the bottom.
There were one or two wisecracks as we untangled. In the clean category, the one I liked best came from a first class from Iowa. "I like ordinary reveille better," he said as he haughtily plucked my foot out of his face with just the thumb and forefinger and with grim distaste placed it gently on the deck.
Twenty seconds passed. Maybe more. Most of us had gotten to our feet. Some went back to work pulling on baseball uniforms. The Utah men were playing for a share of the Pacific Fleet championship that morning, and orders had come down from the bridge for the baseball team to be ready to leave the ship at "zero aight unnerht shop"-in English, 0800 sharp. There were only a few minutes left.
Conversation ceased. Utah men got around by the faint calls of the bosun's pipe from topside somewhere or the bark of a bugle down a hatch or the high-pitched scream of the coxswain down the back of the shirt collar. No fancy sound system for us. A Sailor had to listen with dead intent to know what was going on in the world above and beyond him. So even the banter stopped. We were hard at the hearing game, straining for "the word."
It never came.
The second explosion split the after bulkhead of our quarters from the deck to the overhead. A blast of concussion nailed a ringing slap on the eyes and ears; the deck rose majestically into the air, paused, and dropped violently away. There was no place for bodies to go but down. I grabbed for help at a passing girder but missed.
In the terrible silence that followed we again untangled ourselves. "Excuse me, Mac," I said soberly, "you are heavy." I was a reservist from Iowa, with only three months of sea duty to my name. The regular who landed on top of me was a career man and traditionally, emotionally, unequivocally opposed to a reservist in any way, shape, or form—sea duty or no sea duty. He jerked an arm free and jumped to his feet without even a reply. From where I was lying I could see that the three main braces on the overhead had buckled into a lazy "L" and that the port lockers were heaped in the far corner.
I got to my feet, walked slowly over to the pile of tin, found locker number 32, reached in, rescued my watch hanging on an inside hook, then ritually closed and locked the door. I left behind a first-base glove, a picture of Betty Grable's legs, and a collection of Alf Landon buttons. That's how serious I figured things were.
The $49.95 Elgin Special, purchased from a most congenial 14th Street merchant in San Diego for a down payment of $5 and a lifetime contract of two skins a week, read 0755. As I very carefully buckled it to my wrist, the Utah lurched hard to port. Over the combing from the next compartment sloshed the filthy water of Pearl Harbor.
Overhead on the second deck I could hear the drumming of scared feet. They were going in no particular direction and the sound carried no meaning. The off-key babble of voices that ran with them was just as aimless and unrelated. I could hear no order, no authority, no control. This wasn't the Navy I knew.
I started a slow stroll for the ladder. The compartment wasn't just filling up with water from below, fear was seeping down from above. I wanted to be first on that bottom rung but was afraid that if I started running it would initiate a panic. Panic walked at my side, nudging me with an elbow.
The mood of the compartment was shattered by a coxswain screaming down the ladder way: "The Japs are attacking! No shit this time!"
That was his exact wording. Not that his choice of words mattered to me. I got the message, and so did everyone else in that compartment. For three months we had used the Jap call to jazz up the dreary general quarters routine. Like they say in the books, this was no drill, and every Sailor in that compartment knew it.
Eleven guys hit the bottom of the ten-place ladder at the same time. I was number 12. From far topside I could hear the faint and futile call to battle stations. On board most ships that would have meant action. On board the Utah it was strictly a no-shoot maneuver to relieve the monotony. There wasn't a gun belonging to the Utah larger than a .45-caliber pistol that wasn't at Mare Island or buried in grease and boxed in steel plate.
I did have a general quarters station, though. It was the practice-loading machine, excellent for working up a sweat but monumentally inept for attacks of anything but nostalgia. The really important fact was that the machine was located topside on the main deck in a weather protected open area called the air castle. Topside seemed a most attractive place to be going.
For a moment I joined the fight on the compartment ladder, but there were too many men and too few steps. For some reason those at the top were not going on through the hatch, and the flight had become a seething, grabbing, yelling mob that didn't seem to be going anyplace. I jumped back to the deck and took a smaller escape hatch into the next compartment forward. I went through three more compartments, all with open hatches, finally hitting a free companionway going up to the second deck. I found myself in officer country.
This was no place for the unwashed. I doubled back toward the stern and the familiar quarters of the enlisted men on the second deck. By now the Utah had started a roll to port. The deck, which had been only canted at a slightly awkward slant, was now actively turning over underfoot. By the time I reached the hatchway of the compartment where I would have originally—and hopefully—emerged, I was stunting to keep on my feet, sort of a leaning sprint with occasional bounces off the bulkhead.
Now I could see why my fellow Sailors at the top of the ladder were so slow moving on. The hatch opened up on one of the Utah's spacious living and eating compartments on the second deck. To get free of compartment 3C, a Sailor had to step out into a fantastic shooting gallery of skidding, crashing lockers and mess tables. Every piece of equipment in the place was popping its moorings and caroming across the deck, slamming into the portside bulkhead with shattering force.
An iron-legged, two-inch-thick solid-oak table dropped off its overhead rack like a giant spider, swallowing up a flailing third-class carpenter's mate before crashing into the piling debris. The Sailor went down without a sound. He never knew he'd been hit.
One complete row of lockers along the starboard side pulled loose and, staying upright all the way, swept the deck clean on its way down to the port bulkhead. The screams of Sailors caught halfway across the compartment by the moving wall ended abruptly in the smash of steel on steel.
I didn't like the odds of getting across the mess deck free and clear. I headed for a small, half-concealed, little-used escape ladder high on the starboard side of the compartment. It wasn't big but it was enough. In about six strides I was up on the main deck and burst into the air castle and World War II.
"What took you so long?" yelled the regular above the bark of the 40-mm guns from the USS Tangier (AV-8) moored astern.
"I went back to lock my locker."
"You're just full up with smarts, aren't you? Here, grab a preserver before you get hurt." He had slashed free a stack of life vests tied to an overhead rack and was passing them out to the Sailors who had made it this far.
The whine of a dive-bomber touched an unused nerve in my arm and in pulling a preserver from the bundle I ripped it in half as easily as if it were Kleenex. The regular slammed me down behind the kapok pile. The air castle served as my first foxhole. Out of its open end I could see the plane pull out over the harbor and the bomb falling end over end toward the Utah. The blast that followed funneled Pearl Harbor water 50 feet in the air. The fantail jumped up and came down in a shower of mud.
From the Utah's bridge the mournful "Abandon ship" call sailed out over the harbor. The regular jumped to his feet and started on a slanting run out of the air castle. I threw what I had left of the life preserver up in the air and followed hard on his heels. As I turned to grab for a lifeline, I caught a red ball out of the corner of my eye. The solid red circle was painted on the underside of a low-wing monoplane moving in from my right. This one wasn't diving. It was coming in slow and easy about 50 feet above water level. From the leading edge of the wings the red tracers of the machine guns were pouring into the Utah.
"Look out!" yelled the regular, throwing both arms wide to stop the run. We hit the deck as one and rolled up against the galley door.
I looked up and saw the enemy. The canopy of the slow-moving Zero had been pushed back and the pilot's long, white scarf was billowing out on the wind. He was no longer looking at the Utah but firing at a target on the beach. I remember, above all else, that he was grinning. He couldn't have been more than 150 feet from where we were huddled.
"You okay?" asked the regular, looking back over his shoulder.
He reached out his hand as I started to skid down the side. It was the first Utah handshake between a man of the sea by profession and a man of the land at sea by dislocation. Grabbing and clawing with each of our free hands we made it to the lifelines.
The starboard side was almost completely out of the water by now. Abandoning ship was being accomplished by the most expeditious routes. Sailors were sliding down the side of the ship, jumping from the bridge, even hand-over-handing their way down the mooring lines. All that was needed to get free was to space the run to the water between the passing of the Jap strafers, a 15-second gap from the one directly overhead to his buddy next in line.
I had just swung my leg through the lifelines to begin my count when the logs began to roll. From the air castle to the stern, huge timbers that had been laid end-to-end in double rows to protect the main deck from practice bombs had broken loose and were piling over each other on their way to the harbor's water. They blocked the galley hatch and raged against an empty gun mount. A mooring line snapped and the sudden lurch threw the remaining logs into the harbor. The rest of the lines parted under the added strain.
The Utah rolled over on her side.
Hanging onto a lifeline was no place to be. I stood up, ran hard down the fully exposed starboard belly and jumped into space. Pearl Harbor closed over my head with five seconds to spare if my counting was correct before the next strafing.
I broke through the oil slick and headed slowly toward a lifeboat bobbing gently on the surface. The world was over for the Utah. Flip side up, keel high in the air, her last target run had been for real. She had lasted 15 minutes. I know, because as I clung to the side of the small boat trying to beat back the shakes, the Elgin read 0810.
"Don't just hang there—get that damn rudder in place," somebody yelled above me. I swam around and did what he told me to do, whoever he was. I stuck the damn rudder in place.
And then I ducked.
A Zero stitched us west to east, and his buddy came right down the line from north to south in a perfect crisscross. I came back up out of the water to find the boat empty except for a lone Sailor nursing a sputter into the motor. He was hunched down over the oily panel, goosing the choke and talking to the motor like an only child. "Come, baby . . . come to daddy, baby . . . let's go, baby. . ."
With the roar of the engine, a two-man navy was born with a reserve on the tiller and a cocky, shouting regular on the throttle as other Sailors came aboard as we headed for shore. Another red ball roared in spitting tracers. Out of the boat, into the water. And then, out of the water, into the boat. Once on the beach the Sailors sprinted for shelter. A second red ball caught one of them in the run for the roses.
We took the whaleboat out again, got it loaded, and ran to the beach, backed off, reloaded, and ran in again until the area was clear of Sailors. The strafers never stopped, either. They combed the waters ahead and behind the whaleboat, picking Sailors off wherever they lifted their heads. All the men in our boat either huddled low on the planks or dropped momentarily back into the water on each pass.
Our last trip around the Utah netted only two men: a young warrant officer out of the engine rooms and a badly mauled seaman. The warrant officer was standing straight up on the Utah's now fully exposed bottom, one hand resting on his friend's back. The seaman was down on one knee vomiting oil and blood into the harbor. Calmly, the young warrant helped the Sailor into the boat and then stepped in himself. This warrant was the assistant baseball coach and a friend of mine. They were the last men to leave the Utah under their own steam. Once they were in the whaleboat we swung her around toward the beach and opened her up. We drove her as high and dry on the rocks of Ford Island as she would go.
Ford Island took a beating. The strafers and bombers worked over everything standing, moving, or kneeling. Survivors ashore dove into pipeline trenches, houses, and cars. For 1 hour and 21 minutes, the job was to stay alive. There were no lessons in boot camp on survival. This was a final exam being given at the start of the course.
Steadily, the trench we were in was becoming more dangerous. The bombers were moving in. One hit or near miss and the Utah's survivors would be buried where they huddled. I swung a leg over the top, checked for strafers, and bellied over to a boulder. A bomb zeroed in. I tried to bury myself into the soft soil piled by the rock. The explosion threw dirt, brush, and rock around us like a cannon shot. A portion of the trench gave way. Through the dirt and filth of the cave-in, hands scraped for holds. I rolled over and grabbed a wrist. Out of the mud came the regular. Pulling each other to our feet, we scrambled for the houses across the road. This was no time to be sitting around in trenches. Across the way, the Arizona (BB-39) and 1,177 men had been blown into eternity. The Oklahoma (BB-37) capsized. The Nevada (BB-36) ended up on a sandbar. The Maryland (BB-46) was bottled up on the inside row, burning. The Pennsylvania (BB-38) sat in dry dock. The Tennessee (BB-43) was cold.
Squatting behind the house, we mapped a path to cross the airfield. The first jump was into a huge sand pile. We hit the airstrip at flank speed and dove into the small mountain of sand. One more jump and we would reach the position of a first-hand view of Battleship Row. The step after that would have to wait.
Grabbing for air, we pushed up out of the sand and headed for a cement culvert. The last bombers had already started their drop to the harbor. The regular dove into my legs, slamming me to earth at the last second before the bomb went off. I sat up, pulling myself free from his clutch. His blood was already soaking into the sand of Ford Island. I turned him over gently, already knowing what I would find. I'd been too busy to really get a good look at him. Across the airstrip, I could see an ambulance moving in among the houses. I picked up the best friend I ever had and walked in the direction of the siren.
All of a sudden it was quiet over Pearl. There were no planes, no bombs, no commands—just the crackling stillness of fire. I left more than 2,000 fellow Sailors and friends in the ships and waters of Pearl Harbor, 58 from the Utah alone. Not a single one of them had a chance. There was no warning. No preparation, nowhere to go but down.
Mr. Green was transferred to the USS Detroit (CL-8) after his Utah service and later served in the USS Straus (DE-408). He became an officer and earned three combat stars for his wartime service.