When Japanese bombs began to fall on Pearl Harbor, United States Navy Seaman First Class David Russell 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 closing that hatch. And I decided to get out of there, “Russell, now 101, said in a recent interview.
In 12 minutes, his battleship would sink under a barrage of torpedoes. In all, 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 memorial service for 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 moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the minute the attack began.
The survivors, who are now 90 years old or older, stayed home last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and watched a live broadcast of the event.
Russell travels to Hawaii with the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former NFL Linebacker Donnie Edwards that helps WWII veterans revisit their old battlefields.
He remembers heading to the surface when the attack began because he was trained to load antiaircraft weapons and thought he could help if any other loader were injured.
But Japanese torpedo planes launched a series of submarine missiles that hit Oklahoma before it could get there. In 12 minutes, the huge battleship capsized.
“Those damn torpedoes, they kept hitting us and they kept hitting us. I thought they would never stop, “Russell said. “That ship was dancing.”
Russell clambered over and around the downed lockers as the battleship rolled slowly.
“You had to walk sideways a bit,” he said.
Once he reached the main deck, he crawled over to the side of the ship and looked at the USS Maryland moored alongside. He didn’t want to swim because the spilled oil was burning in the water below. Jumping up, he caught a rope dangling from the Maryland and escaped that battleship without injury.
He then helped pass ammunition to Maryland’s anti-aircraft guns.
After the battle, Russell and two others went to Ford Island, next to where the battleships were moored, in search of a bathroom. A dispensary and enlisted lodge there had been turned into a sorting center and place of refuge for hundreds of wounded, and they found horribly burned sailors lining 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, uh, got a pack of cigarettes and some matches, and I lit their cigarettes for them,” Russell said. “You’re sorry for those guys, but I couldn’t do anything. Just light a cigarette for them and let them smoke the cigarettes. “
Russell still thinks about how lucky he was. Reflect on why he decided to go to the surface of the Oklahoma, knowing that most of the men who stayed behind probably couldn’t get out after the hatch was closed.
In the first two days after the bombing, a civilian crew from the Pearl Harbor Naval Yard rescued 32 men trapped inside the Oklahoma by poking holes in its hull. But many others perished. Most of those who died were buried in anonymous Honolulu graves marked “unknown” because their remains were too degraded to be identified when they were removed from the ship between 1942 and 1944.
In 2015, the Defense Accounting Agency POW / MIA exhumed 388 sets of these remains in hopes of identifying them with the help of DNA technology and dental records. They did it with 361.
Russell’s brother-in-law was among them. Firefighter 1st Class Walter “Boone” Rogers was in the firehouse, which was hit by torpedoes, Russell said. The military identified his remains in 2017 and have since reburied him in Arlington National Cemetery.
Russell remained in the Navy until his retirement in 1960. He worked at Air Force bases for the next two decades, retiring permanently in 1980.
His wife, Violet, passed away 22 years ago and now lives alone in Albany, Oregon. He heads to the grocery store and local American Legion outpost in a black Ford Explorer while listening to loud polka music. When not with other legion veterans, he reads military history and watches television. He keeps a 500-piece puzzle stack to keep his mind sharp.
For decades, Russell didn’t share much about his WWII experiences because no one seemed to care. But images of Pearl Harbor still haunt him, especially at night.
“When I was at the VA hospital in San Francisco, they told me, ‘We want you to talk about WWII.’ And I said, ‘When we talk about it, people don’t believe us. They just leave. ” So now people want to know more about it, so we are trying to talk about it. We are trying to talk about it, and we are just telling you what we saw, “he said. “You can’t forget it.”
(With information from AP)
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