I am of Polish, Irish, and American Indian descent and grew up in the small (population 3,800) northern Illinois town of Geneva. After graduating from high school at age 17 (the only one of six siblings in my family to do so), several of us 17- and 18-year-old kids went down to the recruiting substation in Aurora, Illinois, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. It was Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1940—almost a full year before Pearl Harbor.Applicants had to have been United States citizens between the ages of 17 and 31 and needed to meet the Navy’s physical standards. Since some of us were not 18 years old, parents had to sign for us with their approval. This Depression-era kid stood at five feet, six inches tall and weighed a skinny 127 pounds.
We were allowed to return home for the Thanksgiving dinner weekend. Then, early Monday morning, December 2, a bus drove us from Aurora to the Great Lakes U.S. Naval Training Center near North Chicago, a distance of 60-plus miles.
Once there, we joined another group of recruits to form a company of 110 individuals––Company 122––to be billeted in large wooden barracks where a chief petty officer and two lower ranked petty officers processed us, read us some of the Navy regulations, and assigned us to lockers and bunks. Written and manual exams and physical fitness were also scheduled to determine our qualifications to enter advanced trade schools.
Then we were sent through a processing line where we were issued a complete set of naval clothing: underwear, dungarees, shoes, white jumpers and pants, white caps, etc. Another set of Navy dress blues, caps, and peacoats was issued for winter wear.
Barracks inspection was held every Saturday morning, and each recruit was to have his locker contents neatly displayed on the floor with all clothing tightly rolled and fastened with “stop lines” and small brass ferrules. Some days were devoted to Army-style drills with rifles. We marched around the camp wearing khaki canvas leggings called “boots.” I suppose this is why the Great Lakes Naval Training Center was called “boot camp.”
Reveille was at 5:30 am. We dressed and marched in formation to every meal––breakfast, lunch, and supper. On Sunday, each recruit attended his own faith and worship service. “Rope Yarn Sunday” was free time for all to catch up on seamanship skills, washing clothes, writing letters, or just getting acquainted with the other recruits of our company.
On the rifle range I did not hit anything but got a sore jaw from the weapon’s recoil. I never learned to swim, but I did pass the swimming test by dog paddling my way across the long pool’s required distance.
Final inspection and graduation for Company 122 was January 4, 1941. I had previously developed a sore throat with runny nose—catarrh fever—and was admitted to sick bay. Two weeks later, I was assigned to Company 130, with which I graduated on January 18, 1941.
In a large hall our new assignments were given to us by a petty officer stenciling on each recruit’s clear mattress cover the name of the ship or station to which we were assigned. The printed words on my mattress cover read, “USS Nevada (BB36), Bremerton Naval Yard, Washington.” A series of unanticipated historical events soon erupted that would profoundly affect my personal life.
After completing my recruiting duties at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, I went by train to the Puget Sound Naval Yard in Bremerton, Washington, where I reported aboard the Nevada, a battleship with a crew of 1,500 men. From Puget Sound we would sail to the tropical paradise of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In early December 1941, the Nevada was moored to Quay Fox 8, just astern of the battleship USS Arizona. On the Friday afternoon before that fateful Sunday, I went aboard the Arizona to visit a hometown friend. He invited me to come over on Saturday night after liberty, but I had duty watch on Sunday so I declined his offer. He would be among the 1,177 who perished aboard the Arizona the next day.
At 7:55 am on December 7, a bright, sunny Hawaiian morning, most of the Nevada crew had finished eating breakfast, and the band members and the Marine color guard were assembling on the main deck aft in preparation for the daily posting of the American flag. I left the dining area to use the enlisted men’s “head” and, moments later, the concussions of the first bombs that hit the Nevada literally blew me from my seat.
As general quarters sounded, I ran to my battle station, which was Number 4 After Searchlight, located high up on the mainmast. Already, incoming Japanese planes were strafing the exposed deck areas with machine-gun bullets, and the color guard and band members were scattering for safety. Since the searchlights were obviously not used during daylight hours, all I could do was watch this terrible, alarming, unbelievable nightmare unfold before my eyes.
An aerial torpedo launched from one of the Japanese planes soon struck the Nevada on the port side near frame 40, causing the ship to lurch violently upward and shudder. I could also see numerous torpedo wakes streaking toward the moored battleships West Virginia and Oklahoma.
The Nevada, with some of its boilers already lit on standby, got up enough steam pressure to get underway. As my ship slowly eased its way into the channel and past the Arizona, a tremendous, fiery explosion ripped the Arizona apart, showering the open-deck crews of the Nevada with hot, searing debris, burning many of them to death.
I watched a second wave of high-level and dive bombers now concentrating their efforts on the Nevada as we, the only ship moving, slowly proceeded up the channel, trying to reach open water. Eight bombs hit their mark and severely damaged our forecastle, bridge, and the boat-deck area. The Nevada, I learned later, was given orders to beach herself to avoid blocking the channel and preventing other ships from entering or leaving. An urgent call piped for firefighters—“men free!”
The Nevada now lay bow low aground. I came down from my perch on the mainmast to help with rescue and firefighting efforts and discovered all her decks below the second level, except for the watertight compartments, were filled with floating debris in foul-smelling water mixed with heavy sludge fuel oil.
After most of the fires were put out, we turned our attention to removing the wounded and dead, who were then transferred to motor launches that came alongside. Motor-launch crews were moving between the ships, pulling severely wounded and burned sailors, covered with fuel oil, from the burning waters.
After the attack ended, we were given galvanized buckets to pick up the numerous isolated body parts strewn around the 5-inch gun casemates within my division area. I can never forget finding mangled arms, legs, heads, and knee joints, as well as shoulder fragments and torn, burned body torsos—all unidentifiable because of their blackened, burned condition. The tremendous force of the numerous explosions seemed to have literally strained some of the bodies through the chain-link fencing making up some of the bulkheads in the vicinity of the huge casing for the smokestack.
Seven sunken U.S. battleships now lay helpless along Battleship Row in the harbor. After the fires had been put out and the wounded and dead were removed from these ships, harbor tugs towing empty barges came alongside these stricken vessels to begin salvage operations. Nevada’s losses were three officers and 47 men killed, 102 wounded, and 17 missing.
The Nevada still lay bow down, mired in the mud at Waipio Point. We began throwing all loose debris and metal fragments into the barges while repair crews from the navy yard climbed aboard carrying acetylene torch tanks and began cutting through the fire-blackened, torn, and twisted structures still posing a hazard to the crew.
I still recall the day, February 12, 1942, when the bow was slowly raised by a huge barge crane, causing a loud sucking noise as our ship was freed from its muddy prison and floated. Towed and maneuvered by tugs, Nevada reached one of Pearl’s drydocks, where repairs immediately became top priority to make the ship as seaworthy as possible to reach the mainland for more extensive repairs.