The Morning When All Hell Broke Loose

The following is an excerpt from a book I am writing, tentatively entitled Salty Dog: A Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Journey through Letters and Memory, about Elmer Luckett and his experiences during the war. The writing is a bit rough still, since the manuscript is in development, but it is close to what his Pearl Harbor story will look like in the final product. This chapter, entitled “All Hell Broke Loose,” also includes the history of what led up to the attacks, as well as a discussion of their aftermath (including Japanese internment) in the United States. My end goal is to blend grandpa’s story with narrative history about the war itself. Anyway, please let me know what you think! – Matt

Sunday, December 7th was a workday for Elmer. After a week of patrolling the harbor entrance, the Chew pulled into port on Saturday, when it was then relieved by the Ward. The Chew dropped anchor in the northeast corner of the harbor, just a few hundred yards stern side from Battleship Row. Ford Island, with its support facilities and massive fuel tanks, lay just to the southwest. Surrounded by water, the only way to get to shore was to take a motorized whaleboat. Two crewmen operated the vessel: a seaman who steered the boat, and an engineer who operated the engine.

Elmer had engine duty that day.

Grandpa woke up early, rolled out of his cot, and got ready for work. Sunday mornings usually ran a bit slower – they were the perfect time to lollygag, eat a leisurely breakfast, and chat with friends. Elmer wrote several letters the previous evening, so he took the opportunity that morning to mail them before reporting to duty. He headed topside to where the mailbox was located. Bathed in crisp sunlight, the top deck of the Chew was already beginning to feel warm, despite it not even being 8am yet. This sort of weather would be unheard of back home for most of the sailors aboard, but in Hawaii the temperature only drops to the upper 60s at night, which makes the air cool for about five minutes before dawn. Then it starts start to feel muggy again, like a bathroom with no working fan after a steamy shower. After dropping off his letters, Elmer strolled over to the galley, which was also topside. He ran into Ossie there, who was about to eat, and the two friends began to chat. It was 7:55 in the morning, and the whale boat had not yet returned to the ship with all of the sailors and officers who had spent the previous night offboard. He described what happened next in an oral interview over 70 years later:

“And all of a sudden, [Ossie] said, ‘Look at all that smoke over at Ford Island.’ I looked over there and it was just about the time that I took a look, there it was. Planes started coming in over Battleship Row, the dive bombers hitting Battleship Row. Then, in the distance I could see the torpedo planes, torpedo bombers. They were coming in, and they’d just skim it over the water. And they were, like, lined up. They would drop their torpedoes and take off, one after another . . . Meanwhile, Ozzie and I, we were just standing there all shook. And I do remember saying to him, I said, ‘This means war.’ And then . . . the planes went by. You could see the red Rising Sun insignia on their wings.”

Elmer Luckett

He and Ossie stood there in shock for a few long moments and watched helplessly as Japanese torpedoes began slamming into the outboard battleships. “When the torpedoes hit, you see the plane drop the torpedo,” he later explained, “and then just a second or two later you’d see the battleship jump up from the impact of the torpedo hitting.”

Elmer might not have realized it at the time, but he was watching one of World War II’s many technical innovations being deployed for the first time. One of the reasons why so many Americans erred in believing that Pearl Harbor was safe from attack was that the water, which was only a few dozen feet deep, was too shallow for such an attack. Torpedoes are heavy things; lobbing one into the water from a speeding airplane is like driving a Ford F-150 at 60 miles per hour off a tall bluff into a river. Strategists believed, not without reason, that Japan’s torpedo bombers would not be able to harm any of the ships at Pearl. Unfortunately, Japanese planners realized this too, so they invented a new kind of torpedo with wooden fins. This new design made the weapons more buoyant, allowing them to quickly resurface and strike their targets without first hitting the seabed. The Battleships were sitting ducks.

After a few minutes the captain sounded general quarters, and both he and Ossie sprung into action as their training kicked in. Elmer raced across the ship towards his duty station in the engine room. As he ran, bombs rained down upon the nearby battleships and torpedoes sliced through the shallow water towards their marks. Just before he reached the ladder, a deafening roar drowned out the distant booms and machine gun fire.

“Why, then the Arizona got hit with that explosion that … it was just a big ball of flames; [a] tremendous explosion.”

Elmer Luckett

A Japanese bomb tore through the Arizona’s decks and detonated its magazine, causing a massive explosion that tore the battleship apart. Hundreds of sailors and Marines died either instantly or over the next few minutes, many of whom were burned alive as nearly every surface of the ship caught fire. Witnesses later described dismembered body parts and twisted chunks of steel being blown away from the doomed ship and into the water by the blast. Overall, nearly half of the servicemen who died that day were aboard the Arizona. Elmer did not stick around to watch. If he did, it is a memory he never discussed.

After escaping the horrors above, Elmer quickly encountered chaos below. Many of the engineers were on liberty, and so several critical duty stations were unmanned.

“I remember they got a call down . . . about starting up the engine in the steering room. In the back, there was a separate engine that ran the steering mechanism that turned the rudder. Evidently, some of our guys were off on liberty . . . if they didn’t have duty, some of them had their wives over there in the naval housing projects. [Anyway], who[ever] was supposed to handle the steering engine wasn’t aboard.”

Elmer Luckett

The officer in charge ordered Elmer to go back and “get that steering engine running.” However, he had never even set foot in that room before. Once Elmer made it back there, he quickly figured out how to make it run. “I knew what the engines were,” he explained, “so I just went back there and I realized you’ve got to open the exhaust valve, you’ve got to open the drain valves and put the steam to it, and not too hard; just warm up the engine. Once you got it going, well, then it took over what it was supposed to do to move the rudder.” Soon the ship was underway.

Elmer worked four hours on and four hours off for the next three days. Since the Chew was constantly on the move after the bombs began to drop, the whale boat was not able to connect with the ship. He and the other engineers and fireman who had spent the night on the ship had to pull double-duty given the absence of so many crew members. However, this fate was nothing compared to that of the sailors and officers aboard the Arizona.

Although the Chew survived the attack unscathed, the gravity of the drama unfolding around them and their own ship’s uncertain fate weighed on everyone differently. Elmer noticed one coping mechanism as he rushed past the head towards the steering engine. “The toilet facilities . . . had, like, a big, long trench, a long metal thing, and the guys was sitting with each other,” he recalled. “There was a number of them in there, sitting there having bowel movements . . . I glanced in there. You know, the excitement, it just worked their bowel. But it didn’t bother me anyway.” The clinical term for this “excitement” is “acute stress reaction,” and one of the symptoms is sudden and urgent diarrhea. Yet Elmer’s coolness under fire could be misleading. According to Dr. Lawrence Knott, victims could also “[feel] emotionally numb and detached from others.”[i]

The Chew began pacing around the harbor, but it could not leave for several hours. Once the bombing started the battleship Nevada made a beeline for the harbor entrance. However, if the Nevada were to sink on the harbor’s narrow entrance channel, it would have effectively bottled up the surviving ships inside for months. The Japanese pilots soon recognized this and began gunning for the fleeing boat. Once the Nevada’s captain understood what was happening, he ordered his crew to intentionally run the ship aground. “After that happened,” according to Elmer, “I think they ordered that no ships were to try and leave Pearl Harbor until after the attack was over.” Between the Nevada’s self-sacrifice, Yamamoto’s decision to cancel a third wave of bombers, and the absence of three aircraft carriers, the Attack on Pearl Harbor was not the worst-case scenario it could have been. Elmer also pointed out that several targets in and around the harbor (which would have been likely hit during the third wave) were missed:

“The oil storage tanks were all above ground at that time. If they’d have put one or two bombs there, they’d have started that whole goddamn storage field on fire, and all the oil for the ships that they use for fuel would have had to have been shipped out for the West Coast. Meanwhile, there wouldn’t have been no way of getting fuel for Pearl. And another thing, they didn’t hit the dock facilities, the maintenance buildings. They had a machine shop there that could do big work on these battleships or any other ship. They didn’t try and bomb that.”

Elmer Luckett

But near misses and silver linings did not matter to the hundreds of crewmembers entombed on the Arizona, or the thousands of others who died that day. For their families, who would not hear for days or weeks about the status of their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers, the damage was unimaginable.

Elmer’s shipmates Matthew Agola and Clarence Wise were among the dead. Both men spent the previous night away from the ship, and with no way of returning to the Chew that morning they rushed towards the USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock and easy prey for Japanese dive bombers. They died trying to rescue sailors from the Pennsylvania after it caught fire from several bomb blasts and two adjacent destroyers already engulfed in flames.

The Chew earned its spurs – and a Battle Star – for its actions that morning. The gun crew shot down one Japanese plane and damaged two others, and over the next three days the ship conducted anti-submarine patrols off the harbor entrance. “I think we made eight depth charge runs,” Elmer later stated. “We kind of figured we might have been successful with a couple of them. So who knows? It’s kind of hard to verify anything that you do with depth charges below the water.” Oil slicks suddenly rising to the surface were the usual telltale sign of a fallen sub, but only records of enemy communications or another submarine could confirm the kill. In fact, later investigations proved many of these reports to be erroneous or, at best, optimistic. According to the Navy, reports that the Chew destroyed as many as three submarines remain unconfirmed, and thus it has not been credited with any kills. At the very least, the Chew kept the Japanese submariners on their toes, which in turn helped keep the surviving Americans safe.

If the Japanese had attacked a day earlier, or if the Ward had departed a day later, the Chew might have fired what some historians believe was the first shot of the war. During the early morning hours of December 7th, the Ward spotted a Japanese submarine while patrolling the harbor entrance. Of course, the submarine had no legal or diplomatic reason to be in restricted American waters, so the Ward took aim and fired. The submarine sank, and the captain reported his engagement to the Pacific Fleet Command. Unfortunately for thousands of American servicemen at Pearl Harbor and the surrounding airfields, however, it was Sunday morning, and Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Husband Kimmel was in no hurry to relay his report up the chain of command. The Ward’s encounter could have contextualized a report later that morning from a radar station in north Oahu. The technician in charge radioed headquarters that a large formation of planes was inbound from the north, thus providing some warning to the island. Unfortunately, the Lieutenant in charge of the radar system insisted that the technician was looking at a formation of bombers due to arrive from the states, and no warning ever came.


[i] https://patient.info/mental-health/stress-management/acute-stress-reaction

7 thoughts on “The Morning When All Hell Broke Loose

  1. Matt Nice write up………might offer a few change in naval words for your final. They rolled out of their rack, not cot. The crew was onshore not offboard. If you would like I can read through your drafts to clarify some naval details. Uncle Rich

    From Rich’s Desk

    >

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  2. I like the part about the Japanese innovating a new kind of torpedo that would work in the shallow water. That was very smart on their part. And man. It sounds like it was hell on earth when they started bombing. I’m sure you just see your life ending right there. There’s no telling the thoughts going through your head. Great post!

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