Panama City, FL –
HONOLULU (AP) – When Japanese bombs began to fall on Pearl Harbor, US Navy Leading Seaman David Russell first sought refuge under the deck of the USS Oklahoma.
But a split-second decision that December morning 80 years ago changed his mind and probably saved his life.
“They started to close that hatch. And I decided to get out of there, ”Russell, now 101, said in a recent interview.
In less than 12 minutes, his battleship capsized under a barrage of torpedoes. A total of 429 Oklahoma Sailors and Marines would perish – the highest death toll of any ship that day except the USS Arizona, which lost 1,177.
Russell plans to return to Pearl Harbor on Tuesday for a ceremony in remembrance of the more than 2,300 American soldiers killed in the December 7, 1941 attack that launched the United States into World War II.
About 30 survivors and 100 other war veterans are expected to observe a minute of silence at 7:55 a.m., the minute the attack began.
Survivors, now in their late 90s or more, stayed home last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and instead watched a live stream of the event.
Russell travels to Hawaii with the Better Defense Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by former NFL linebacker Donnie Edwards that helps WWII veterans revisit their old battlegrounds.
He remembers heading upward when the attack began because he had been trained to load anti-aircraft guns and believed he could help if another loader was injured.
But Japanese torpedo planes dropped a series of underwater missiles that pummeled Oklahoma before it could get there. In less than 12 minutes, the imposing battleship capsized.
“Those damn torpedoes, they kept hitting us and hitting us. I thought they would never stop, ”said Russell. “This ship was dancing around.”
Russell climbed over and around the overturned lockers as the battleship slowly toppled over.
“You had to sort of walk sideways,” he said.
Once on the main deck, he crawled to the side of the ship and observed the USS Maryland moored alongside. He didn’t want to swim because an oil leak was burning in the water below. While jumping, he grabbed a hanging rope in Maryland and escaped from that battleship uninjured.
He then helped pass ammunition to the Maryland anti-aircraft guns.
After the battle, Russell and two others traveled to Ford Island, next to where the battleships were moored, in search of a bathroom. A dispensary and quarters of soldiers had turned into a triage center and place of refuge for hundreds of wounded, and they found horribly burned sailors along the walls. Many would die in the hours and days to come.
“Most of them wanted a cigarette, and I wasn’t smoking at the time, but I got a pack of cigarettes and matches, and I lit their cigarettes for them,” Russell said. “You feel for these guys, but there was nothing I could do. Just light a cigarette for them and let them puff up the cigarettes.
Russell still thinks about how lucky he was. He wonders why he decided to go to the surface of Oklahoma, knowing that most of the men left behind probably couldn’t get out after the hatch was closed.
In the first two days after the bombing, civilian crew from the Pearl Harbor Shipyard rescued 32 trapped men inside Oklahoma by drilling holes in its hull. But many more have perished. Most of those who died were buried in unmarked graves in Honolulu marked as “unknown” because their remains were too degraded to be identified by the time they were removed from the ship between 1942 and 1944.
In 2015, the Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency unearthed 388 sets of these remains in hopes of identifying them using DNA technology and dental records. They succeeded with 361.
Russell’s brother-in-law was among them. Firefighter First Class Walter “Boone” Rogers was in the fire hall, which was hit by torpedoes, Russell said. The military identified his remains in 2017, and he has since been laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
Russell remained in the Navy until his retirement in 1960. He worked in Air Force bases for the next two decades and retired for good in 1980.
His wife, Violet, died 22 years ago and he now lives alone in Albany, Oregon. He walks to the grocery store and the local American Legion station in a black Ford Explorer while listening to polka at full volume. When not hanging out with other Legion veterans, he reads military history and watches TV. He keeps a stack of 500 piece puzzles to keep his mind sharp.
For decades, Russell didn’t talk much about his experiences during WWII because no one seemed to care. But the images of Pearl Harbor still haunt him, especially at night.
“When I was at the VA Hospital in San Francisco, they said to me, ‘We want you to talk about WWII.’ And I said, I told them, I said, ‘When we talk about it, people don’t believe us. They just walk away. So now people want to know more, so we’re trying to talk about it. We try to talk about it and we just tell them what we saw, ”he said. “You can’t forget it.”
101-year-old returns to Pearl Harbor to remember those lost Source link 101-year-old returns to Pearl Harbor to remember those lost