Fateful Hour: Three Linked by Pearl Harbor Attack
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
On a Sunday morning in Hawaii, Swede Boreen was counting out cash for a sailor's pay when the ship's klaxon sounded its harsh call for battle stations.
He looked out the pay office porthole to see a grinning Japanese bomber pilot flash by in his Kate bomber. He'd just released the first of nine "thunderfish" aerial torpedoes that would hit Boreen's ship, the USS Oklahoma.
At almost exactly the same moment, Edd Clay - then a boatswain's mate on the deck of the USS Minneapolis, just rounding Diamond Head - was watching fireworks over Pearl Harbor and thinking the base was putting on quite a show, part of a drill, anti-aircraft guns blazing. Then he saw the sky filled with Japanese planes, and heard the announcement that the island was under attack as the ship made a sharp turn to sea, rushing to flank speed in search of the enemy fleet.
Francis Xavier "Frisky" O'Donnell huddled with mates against a nearby ship's hull in their small boat through the 110 minutes of the two-wave attack, then moved through oil-covered waters collecting bodies, wounded sailors and survivors.
His granddaughter, Ashley Baker - now state chair for North Carolina of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor - will go with Clay today to Wilmington and join other survivors and families in a Pearl Harbor Day remembrance ceremony on the grounds of the USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial.
On Wednesday, all three sat around a table to share memories of that fateful hour and all that followed on Dec. 7, 1941 - "a date which will live in infamy" as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it in his historic plea to Congress for a declaration of war.
They looked over Boreen's maps of the harbor, at photos of the vast destruction, pored over pictures Baker had brought along showing rescue efforts.
"That's what my grandpa did - he picked the people up in the water," Baker said. "He was assigned to the USS West Virginia. He was cleaning marine growth when the planes came over.
"They couldn't do anything. They hid kind of next to this boat. They ducked under, then went out collecting people. My grandfather picked up bodies out of the ocean, took them back to the ship."
A famous picture showing boats collecting bodies may include Baker's grandfather. It may have been his launch that collected a Robert Franklin Jackson - the very sailor whose re-enlistment leave pay Boreen had been readying at the moment the attacks began.
"When they picked up Jackson out of the water and got him into the motor launch, the first words he said were he 'wouldn't have another beer in all my life' - because he'd been celebrating his re-enlistment," Boreen said. "I was, too. Had a few beers over there the night before."
'Stacked Them Up'
Japan attacked without warning, launching fighters and torpedo bombers in two waves, 45 minutes apart. The first struck Pearl Harbor at 7:55 a.m. The second wave reached the base about 8:40 a.m. By 9:45 a.m., it was all over, with 2,355 U.S. servicemen killed, and 1,143 wounded. Sixty-eight civilians also died, and 35 were wounded.
Boreen has all the facts readily at hand, and makes a yearly solemn duty of reminding others to "Remember Pearl Harbor" - in the words of a song that topped charts in the months to follow.
Clay recalls grisly duty after low fuel forced his ship's return to Oahu.
"We went on patrol in Pearl Harbor and picked up bodies," Clay said. "We took them out, and they stacked them up. Corpsmen were trying to match dental records."
The day after the attack, Boreen was sent to the receiving station to take up survivors.
"We had 950 from our ship, plus other ships," he said. "I went to the Pennsylvania to see the fleet force supply officer."
He had been ordered by his ship's supply officer to do an impossible thing: put out a complete set of financial returns from the upturned Oklahoma.
"He said he'd contact my officer, which he did," Boreen said. "He says just write a letter to the war office and say, 'Due to the operations of war - blah, blah, blah - everything went down with the ship.' I thought I'd lost brownie points with him, but a year later they gave him a million dollars in cash to set up a forward base, and he asked me to go with him. I said, 'No, thank you.' I'd had enough of him."
Clay had come out on the West Virginia out of boot camp and stayed aboard it until three months before the attack.
"Transferred to the Minneapolis, thank God," he said. "We left the area, thank God. If we'd got any closer, we'd have been bombed."
Boreen remembers three torpedoes hitting the Oklahoma, which took only 15 minutes to roll over.
"Each torpedo was the length of the Kate bomber - 8 feet long - and contained 252 pounds of explosive," he said. "They came in droves of three, the Kate bombers."
At that time, on the quarterdeck of the Minneapolis, Clay was looking across the water toward Pearl Harbor.
"I thought they were putting on a show, shooting guns," he said. "About that time the word came over the PA system that the harbor was under attack by the Japanese. We stopped steaming along about Honolulu (abreast of its famed Aloha tower). Finally the skipper got word that apparently the Japanese planes were coming over the Pali and turning toward Pearl Harbor. We found out later they weren't.
"We headed in the wrong direction with two destroyers looking for their fleet. Had we found them, we'd have waded into them - and probably not lasted long. Made a dent. Got in a few licks."
They never found the fleet, and were about out of fuel.
"We headed in the next morning," Clay said. "Of course, utter devastation. We had to have provisions and fuel. Fortunately the Japanese didn't attack the fuel dumps. They were going to use that oil when they came ashore. A working oil barge came alongside and we took on fuel. One warehouse was unscathed. We took on beans, cocoa, some meat - what we could get - and headed west."
He was at sea afterward for 91 days.
"We were primarily guarding carriers," he said. "We took survivors off the Lex when she sunk. One of the most awe-inspiring things I've ever done was the burial at sea. A lot of the kids we brought aboard died. At midnight we had a burial at sea ceremony, and I used the bos'n's pipe to bid them farewell."
'Lift Out of Water'
Boreen showed Clay and Baker diagrams of the harbor showing all the damaged ships marked in red. Lines indicated the path followed by attacking Japanese planes. Their primary targets would have been carriers, but all three were at sea.
"We had 94 ships in Pearl Harbor that morning," Boreen said. "Out of the 94, 70 were combat vessels - battleships, destroyers and submarines."
Clay pointed to his ship's standard berth. All the battleships of the U.S. Pacific fleet except for the Colorado had been at Pearl Harbor that day with seven lined up in "Battleship Row" when attacked. The USS Nevada left its berth trying make it out of the harbor, but beached herself after sustained attacks. A bomb hit the forward magazine on the Arizona and it exploded.
"I saw it hit," Boreen said, pointing to Battleship Row. "I saw her lift out of the water."
About 1,100 U.S. servicemen died on board the Arizona, flagship of the fleet. The hulk of the battleship still lies submerged beneath a white memorial bearing the names of those lost.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or jfchappell @gmail.com.
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