A day that still lives in infamy

By KYRA LOW, The Mirror

It was “a day that would live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt put it.

Dec. 7, 1941, was also a day that changed the nation and a generation.

About 350 planes were launched from the decks of the Japanese cruisers about 200 miles off the shores of Hawaii.

There were 94 ships in Pearl Harbor that day — battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and others all in the shallow cove.

The attack by Japan came in two waves and three directions, divided into four phases. Most of the damage was done in the first few minutes while surprise was still the element.

The attack cost the lives of 2,326 U.S. officers and servicemen. Nowadays, the number of Pearl Harbor survivors is dwindling, as most are now in their 80s and 90s.

Don Green, president of the Donald K. Ross chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, said that there are 263 survivors living in Washington and about 5,000 in the United States. However, an average of 60 survivors die every three months, he said.

Last year’s 65th anniversary was the last year survivors planned on meeting en masse at the memorial; most are simply too old to make the trip to Hawaii.

Kent resident William Stockham, who attended last year’s memorial, was on board the USS Tennessee during the 1941 attack.

“We were tied up at Battleship Row, just in front of the (USS) Arizona,” Stockham said. “I was getting ready to meet up with a buddy on another ship.”

When the airplanes started flying overhead and the sirens wailed around 8 a.m., Stockham recalled thinking that there wouldn’t be a drill without people being aware of it, so it must be real.

“I ran out onto the quarter deck,” Stockham said. “There were bullets flying all around. Then a bomb came through (the ceiling). It killed three guys and burned three of us pretty bad. It burned off all my hair and I got some shrapnel.”

Stockham spent the next week in sick bay, but he survived and went on to serve in the Pacific front.

In a relative lull from 8:25 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., an estimated 15 planes continued to dive bomb the ships, mainly the Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Maryland, Nevada, Honolulu, Helena, Cassin, Downes, Shaw and Oglala.

In the third phase there were horizontal bomber attacks centered on the Pennsylvania, Helena, California, Oglala and three destroyers in the dry-docks. Dive bombers also hit the Tennessee, West Virginia, Nevada and the three destroyers.

All of the battleships moored outboard in Battleship Row were torpedoed, while one torpedo passed underneath the Oglala and exploded against the Helena. The blast caved in the sides of the Oglala, and the ship capsized an hour later.

On the north side of the island, the Raleigh was struck by one torpedo and the Utah turned turtle after taking two, taking 54 men with her.

One plane put a bomb down a stack of the Arizona, whose forward boilers and magazine blew up. More than a million pounds of gunpowder exploded in a huge fireball, and 1,177 men perished and the Arizona sunk to the bottom in less than 10 minutes.

Japan had specially fit torpedoes with wooden fins to prevent them from going too low in the water. Japan also crafted a large armor-piercing shell of 15 or 16 inches.

One torpedo that did miss was the one shot at the light cruiser, the USS Detroit. The torpedo is believed to have crashed into the mud, according to papers from the Navy Historical Society.

Des Moines resident Ellis Lewellen, who was on the ship, recalled that even the miss made a pretty good impact.

“After the torpedo missed,” Lewellen said, “we pulled a good many men out of the harbor, then we got out of there.”

It took about two hours for the USS Detroit to clear the harbor, but they, along with the USS Curtiss, brought down two Japanese planes.

Other successful attacks were made on the California, which sank very slowly, touching bottom three days later; 98 crew members died.

One of these shells penetrated the California’s second deck, where a large part of the ship’s company was assembled. Many of the men were killed and the explosion resulted in a raging fire between decks.

When the West Virginia was hit by six torpedoes, it sunk and 105 men died, three of which survived in a sealed compartment until, according to their markings on a calendar, Dec. 23 when their oxygen ran out. The Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Helena, Shaw, Curtiss and Oglala were also victims of a successful attack.

Two or more torpedoes hit the main turrets of the Tennessee. Despite the numerous hits, the Tennessee had only five fatalities.

The scene was utter chaos.

“There was oil all over the harbor,” Stockham said. “It was three to four inches thick and burning. Everyone was trying to do something to save somebody. It was a real catastrophe.”

After the attack, the Pacific fleet lay in ruin. With the exception of the Arizona, the Utah and the Oklahoma, every ship sunk or damaged that day would sail again.

Contact Kyra Low: or (253) 925-5565.

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