'Will Live in Infamy': Boreen Keeps Pearl Harbor Memories Alive
Most wouldn’t take “Swede” Boreen for 91, either to look at him or shake his hand.
Boreen has a grip like a steel vise and looks to be in his 60s — maybe early 70s — but he’s a World War II veteran from the very first shot. He remembers Pearl Harbor — firsthand. He was there.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the attack.
Every December, he thinks back to that historic Sunday morning the war began and the grin he saw on a Japanese pilot’s face flashing past the porthole just before the first torpedoes hit his ship.
“I reported for duty to the battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) on Dec. 17, 1938, and served her first in the third division deck force and then supply and disbursing departments,” he said, thinking back. “I served in her until that fateful day 70 years ago — Dec. 7, 1941 — a day ‘that will live in infamy’ and the day that changed not only the course of history but the courses of so many of our lives.”
Boreen survived Pearl Harbor and the war and continued to serve in the U.S. Navy until he retired in September 1959 as chief warrant officer — 21 years of service in the supply and disbursing fields.
This is his story, told in his own words and based on his memories and years of research into the history of that surprise attack.
“On this 70th Pearl Harbor anniversary, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, I would like to pay homage and tribute in remembrance of the 2,403 casualties (2,008 Navy, 109 Marines, 218 Army, and 68 civilians) plus 1,178 wounded (710 Navy, 69 Marines, 364 Army and 35 civilians),” Boreen said. “Of the 2,008 Navy casualties, 1,670 were from the battleship division.”
The USS Arizona (BB-39) was the flagship of the Pacific fleet. Aboard it were fathers, sons and brothers.
“The USS Arizona ship’s company of 1,511 included as many as 34 sets of brothers, including three sets of three brothers,” Boreen said. “Among the latter, in each case, two brothers perished and one survived. In the case of nine sets of brothers, one perished and one survived. In addition to the brothers, the Arizona’s casualties included a father and son.”
Attackers hit the flagship hard.
“It was reported that four bombs hit the USS Arizona,” Boreen said. “One was a 1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb that slammed through her deck by gun turret No. 2 and ignited her forward ammunition magazine. This lifted the 35,000-plus ton ship out of the water, shooting a ball of fire, plumes and smoke 400 to 500 feet into the air.”
Boreen saw it happen. He had been working in the pay office aboard his ship, which had returned to port from target practice off Molokai after getting orders to prepare for admiral’s inspection that coming Monday.
From the porthole of that office, Boreen saw the attack begin, watching a Japanese Kate torpedo bomber dropping the first of nine “thunderfish” aerial torpedoes that would strike his vessel.
Boreen made his escape, making his way up ladder after ladder as water poured down.
“After coming up from the third deck of the USS Oklahoma, I was sitting on the starboard blister ledge and actually saw the bomber that dropped that 1,760-pound bomb on the USS Oklahoma,” he said. “In less than nine minutes, she sank with 1,177 of her crew, a total loss. After 70 years, she still leaks oil.”
The USS Arizona Memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day 1962. It is a white structure rising from the water, spanning the sunken hull of the ship, and encloses an assembly area large enough for 200 people, a museum and a shrine bearing the names of all 1,177 casualties.
“Every morning and evening, a color guard raises or lowers the flag from the top of the mast where it flies in memory of all American servicemen who died that day,” Boreen said. “At the foot of that flagpole, a bronze plaque reads: ‘Dedicated to the eternal memory of our gallant shipmates in the USS Arizona who gave their lives in action 7 Dec. 1941.’ The battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) is now docked near the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor providing bookends for history, signifying the beginning and end of America’s involvement in World War II for the United States.”
(Representatives of Imperial Japan signed the articles of unconditional surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.)
The ship’s company of Boreen’s own vessel, the USS Oklahoma, consisted of 85 officers (including three Marines) and 1,294 enlisted (77 Marines), including Boreen. The company totaled 1,374, and — like the Arizona — included many brothers.
“That included three sets of twins (Casto, Palmer and Trapp) and numerous sets of brothers,” Boreen said, remembering his shipmates. “The Casto and Trapp twins perished, and of the Palmer twins one perished and one survived. Casualties were 35 officers and 408 enlisted personnel. Out of the total of 443 casualties, only 35 bodies were ever identified. Four hundred eight remain buried in mass graves marked ‘unknown’ in Hawaii’s National Cemetery.”
It was reported that nine torpedoes (each packed with 452 pounds of explosives) had hit the USS Oklahoma. It took less than 15 minutes to capsize to an angle of 151.5 degrees.
Twenty years ago, Boreen and his wife, Cora, returned to Hawaii for the 50th Pearl Harbor anniversary.
“We were invited with 800 veterans to board the battleship USS Missouri for the Dec. 7 ceremonies at 5:30 a.m. — and had to go through metal detectors and security,” Boreen said. “President George H.W. Bush, his wife and cabinet members would board the ship after his speech on the USS Arizona Memorial.”
A pair of Sony television sets had been installed on the fantail port and starboard sides of the Missouri so the veterans could hear the president’s speech — but they missed out.
“Somebody pulled the plugs before his speech, because they were Japanese made,” Boreen said. “After President Bush, his wife and cabinet members boarded the ship, Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his white uniform, was the only one to come around and shake hands with the veterans.”
It made an indelible impression on this Pearl Harbor veteran.
“I had the pleasure of meeting him and have always admired Gen. Powell since that date,” Boreen said. “Being on a battleship 50 years later and to relive my memories was a very emotional time for me. I was standing on the Missouri’s fantail looking back at Berth F-5 — where the USS Oklahoma and USS Maryland had been berthed on Dec. 7, 1941 — when a female CBS reporter walked up and asked if I was ‘Swede’ Boreen from the battleship USS Oklahoma. I replied yes, and she interviewed me for about 15 to 20 minutes.”
The only battleship that managed to get underway during the attack was the USS Nevada, which had been moored behind the Arizona, but moved out despite one torpedo and five bomb hits, according to Boreen.
“Every enemy plane that could went after that ship,” he said. “Hit again and again, her decks afire, she beached herself in the channel at Hospital Point to avoid sinking and blocking the harbor entrance. Casualties were three officers and 47 enlisted, and five officers and 104 wounded.”
‘Never Be Forgotten’
That 1991 visit was not his first return. During the war, on a Pearl Harbor Day war bond drive in 1944, he had gone back aboard his old ship. A photographer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin captured Boreen standing by the same ship’s ladder he’d used to make his escape to the main deck the day of the attack.
“This brought back memories,” he said. “The next day my picture and an article titled ‘USS Oklahoma and One of Her Crew Meet Again’ appeared on the front page.”
Now, 70 years later, Boreen hopes that day will never be forgotten, that all Americans will “Remember Pearl Harbor” as the old song asks.
“A beautiful poem pays tribute to those who died on that fateful day, Dec. 7, 1941,” Boreen said, quoting:
“Man must begin to live as one,
No matter what the cost.
For all who died that Sunday morn
We bow our heads and pray.
For them, please grant them peace.
For us … a better way.”
Contact John Chappell at email@example.com.
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