Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Particular Tragedy at Pearl Harbor

“Trapped in a Steel Prison”

Of all the tragedies, American forces suffered on the morning of December 7, 1941, the fate of sailors trapped inside sunken ships may have been the worst.  

In the moments before the Japanese struck, Stephen B. Young, a cook on Oklahoma, was cleaning up after breakfast. He and his Hawaiian girlfriend had a picnic planned that afternoon. A quick glance out a porthole told him weather was perfect. Young smiled, realizing he had money for a change. A ten dollar bill and a single were tucked safely in his wallet.

            When the ship was hit and rolled over, Young and thirty others took shelter in a partially-flooded passage. Young dived underwater and reached another compartment, searching for a way out. Floating bodies and mattresses blocked his way. He saw a fat dead man stuck in a porthole. Eventually, he and the other trapped sailors settled down and waited for rescue. Now and then, as hours passed, one or another would leave to look for an escape route. None returned. The waters rose inch by inch round those who remained.

            Young thought about home and family. Even under these conditions memories made him happy. Then he prayed. Someone joked: “Join the Navy and see the world—from the bottom of Pearl Harbor!” 

            Hours passed. 

            Men lost hope. 

            Young and a friend made bets how they might die, though both knew they could not live to collect. Then, on December 8, they heard hammering above. Rescue crews cut their way through the steel hull and pulled Young and the others to safety.

The USS Oklahoma on December 8.


            An even worse fate awaited three sailors aboard West Virginia. As with Oklahoma, when West Virginia went down, many crewmen were imprisoned below decks. In days that followed Marine guards on nearby docks could hear a tireless banging coming from deep inside the ship. It was awful to think about the poor men’s fates and combat-hardened Marines covered their ears and tried not to hear.

            There was no way to know where inside the sunken vessel the poor men might be.

There was no way to help.

            Among those trapped were North Dakota friends, Ronald Endicott, 18, Clifford Olds, 20, and Louis “Buddy” Costin, 21. We know they sealed off a large storage room, surviving for more than two weeks. Months would pass. The battered wreck would be raised, her big guns and other parts salvaged. When workers opened the room where the three friend’s bodies lay they found sixteen days crossed off a calendar in red pencil. Flashlight batteries and food containers littered the floor. A manhole cover over a passage leading to a supply of fresh water was pushed aside.

            These last three victims of the attack on Pearl Harbor had survived until two days before Christmas, December 23, 1941.

USS West Virginia (foreground) burns on December 7, having already settled on the harbor floor.


A FULL TREATMENT of the story of the attack on Pearl Harbor, written for students, can be found at Middle School History and Tips for Teachers.

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