The Forgotten Story of How One U.S. Battleship Fought Back During Pearl Harbor
With the Pennsylvania in drydock, the crew had to go ashore to bathe and use the facilities. After breakfast that morning Winsett made his way down the gangplank toward the shipyard facilities to shower and get ready for his day with his cousin and family. “I wasn’t in any big hurry, since liberty didn’t begin until 8 am,” he recalled. “It was just a normal day. No one was really expecting anything.”
The battleship USS Pennsylvania lies in drydock in Pearl Harbor during the aftermath of the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. Just forward of the battleship lie the severely damaged destroyers USS Downes (left) and Cassin. Pennsylvania sustained some damage, but her crew managed to fight back, firing machine guns and antiaircraft weapons at the attackers.
Then, just as Winsett began walking back toward the Pennsylvania, he heard booming noises. “I thought, ‘Man, that’s a strange time to have battle practice on Sunday morning.’” Explosions were heard on the end of Ford Island aft of Drydock No. 1. At 7:57 am came a bugle call and alarm for general quarters.
Wearing his dungarees, Winsett ran the 50 yards back to the ship and his battle station, a .50-caliber machine gun facing toward the bow on the starboard side. He still believed it was just “another drill.” As soon as the stations were manned, Condition “YOKE” (Enemy Is Probable) was set by Captain C.M. Cooke, Jr.
“None of us believed it was an actual attack, at least at first,” remembered Winsett. “Back then there wasn’t TV and just occasionally a radio for music. I didn’t keep up with the news on a daily basis, and maybe the officers suspected something but they never told the enlisted men anything, so we were all surprised. By the time I got to my position the first wave of attacking planes had started their strafing run. The ammo box beside my gun was locked, so I took a dog wrench and broke off the lock.”
Winsett’s gun was not the only one with the ammo locked up. In the after action report it is noted that many men broke off the locks versus waiting for keys to be found. However, Winsett now laughs that a junior officer put him on report and recommended he be courtmartialed for breaking the lock or, as the junior officer stated in his report, “destroying government property.”
“That Ensign took me before the captain after everything was over and the Captain just shook his head and said, no we are not going to even consider this. That ended my court martial,” Winsett laughed.
On that fateful morning, sailors aboard ships throughout Pearl Harbor were stunned and then sprang into action. “Japanese planes, they were all over,” Winsett said. “You could see the red ball on the wings and the fuselages.”
Winsett began firing his .50-caliber machine gun, and while he will not claim that he shot any Japanese planes down, he is sure he hit many of them. “The ammo was set with tracer rounds every third shot, so it was easy to follow my aim,” he commented. “Those Jap planes were so close I could see the smile on the faces of the pilots as they attacked.”
Fighters and dive bombers streaked overhead, strafing the Pennsylvania as they passed. Winsett kept firing. One civilian, a shipyard worker named George Walters, ran the large dock crane back and forth along its track attempting to block the path of the low-flying Japanese aircraft with the boom. Gunners on the Pennsylvania had their fields of vision blocked since they were below ground level in the drydock and used the boom as a warning sign to indicate the direction of incoming Japanese aircraft.
Formations of torpedo planes and dive bombers passed directly over the Pennsylvania as they focused on Battleship Row, which was off the stern on the Pennsylvania. “Those guys were passing right over my machine gun facing the bow of the ship,” said Winsett. “You could see the pilot. That’s when you let go, when you really knew you were hitting something.”
Acting automatically, the young sailor fed bullets into the machine guns on a long belt and corrected his aim with red-colored tracers. After about 15 minutes of firing, the gravity of the situation began to sink in. “I realized at that point that we were at war,” Winsett observed.
Shooting from the mainmast was a strange experience, one moment spent feverishly firing at Japanese planes and the next forced to sit and observe since the weapon would not swing around 360 degrees. In those moments, Winsett was free to look around and witness the battle.
“I really couldn’t see a lot, mostly just what was in front of me, toward the bow of the ship toward the two destroyers also in dry-dock,” he said. “When the Cassin and Downes took hits and the fires started, the view in that direction became thick with smoke. Smoke was everywhere and really blocked my view except for close by.”
The worst moment for Winsett came when he spotted a good friend from boot camp, the ship’s photographer. His friend was “climbing the aftermast to get some pictures. Next thing I knew he was on the way down. They shot him. That hurt worse than anything else.”
Winsett also remembers the explosion from a bomb that exploded between the two destroyers in drydock. “I heard later on that the bomb didn’t create a lot of damage, but it set off a torpedo on one of the destroyers that really caused most of the damage,” he noted. Fires raged on both the Downes and the Cassin, and the intense heat began to blister the paint on the Pennsylvania and set the teak wood decks ablaze.
Pennsylvania was the first ship to return fire that morning, its machine guns barking at 8:02. During the attack Winsett and his fellow gunner’s mates fired 65,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition.