By Virgil E. Hengl
I was aboard the U.S.S. Tennessee from June 1941 until April 1943. At Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, we were on one of the battleships referred to as “Battleship Row.”
Let me explain, briefly, how I got to Pearl Harbor. The war in Europe had already began with Hitler’s attack on Poland. To prepare itself for an emergency, the United States started drafting 21-year-olds for military duty. I was 19 at the time, and I realized two situations might arise: 1. Either the draft age might be lowered, or 2. I would soon be 21. I would lose either way.
I wanted to be an airplane pilot and fly in the military, but because of my height at the time—6-foot 5.5-inches—I was refused flight school. The maximum height was 6-foot, 4-inches. At that time, there was no Air Force like today. There was Army Air Force, Naval Air Force, etc. So, to beat the draft, I joined the Navy on March 22, 1941.
I had an older brother who had just finished four years in the Navy and was considering getting out of the Navy. But he knew, had he gotten out of the Navy, he would have been drafted. He was aboard the Tennessee and in the “VA division,” which was the aviation division on the ship. Since I wanted to get into aviation, he informed me that if I could come aboard the Tennessee he could get me into the VA division. In June 1941, I boarded the ship and a couple months later I was in the VA division.
December 7, 1941
On Dec. 7, the Tennessee was secured to a quay immediately in front of the U.S.S. Arizona. A quay is a large concrete waterside platform that runs along the edge of a port or platform, where ships are loaded or unloaded. On our starboard side was the quay. On our port side, the U.S.S. West Virginia was secured to our ship. Immediately in front of us was the U.S.S. Maryland. Secured to the Maryland was the Oklahoma. In front of the Maryland was the U.S.S. California. After the attack, only the Tennessee and Maryland were seaworthy but neither ship was able to leave its berth because of the sunken battleships around them. Not until January 1942 were we able to get out. Two bombs hit the Tennessee of which one cracked the armor plate on one of the 16-inch guns and when the second one exploded, shrapnel from it killed the Captain of the West Virginia. Five were killed and several injured on the Tennessee.
Aboard our ship were three airplanes known as OSTU’s whose purpose was for scouting and attacking enemy submarines. However, when the ship is in port, the planes are flown to the nearest airfield. Therefore, during the attack, no planes were aboard our ship. This had quite an effect on me, as I shall explain later. My duty aboard ship was with the aircraft. I was in the VA division. There were about 25 of us in the division plus four pilots. My job was to make sure the planes were in flyable condition whenever the occasion arrived whether emergency or otherwise. As mentioned earlier the planes were not on the ship.
They were on Ford Island, a Naval airfield about one mile from my ship. I had no other assigned duties except taking care of the aircraft. I make note of this because, since I had no other duties, I was at a loss of what had to be done. During battle, there is nothing worse than having no assigned duties. Whenever certain individuals are killed, their position may need to be filled, but an untrained person can hardly fill that position. I was untrained so unable to be a fill-in.
On that Sunday morning I was on the third deck (my living quarters) cleaning out my locker. I had my army cot out and was placing my locker contents on it. In the navy, at that time, Sunday was a day of leisure. I was enjoying my “leisure” when all of a sudden “general quarters” was sounded. This is a signal for all men to man their battle stations. This seemed very unusual because never before in port had general quarters ever sounded and certainly not on a Sunday. Out to sea perhaps, but not in port. During any emergency, one goes from top deck to a lower deck on port side and from lower deck to topside on starboard side. When I reached topside, the first thing I saw was the battleship Utah,across the Island, with its masts about to touch the water. In a few minutes it had capsized. We had no idea what was happening, and though word was out that the Japanese were attacking, we still were unsure. Some other events I saw happening.
I remember seeing several Japanese planes flying about 100 feet above the water and strafing some motor launches filled with American sailors heading for liberty in Honolulu. A most barbaric act. In fact, I feel safe in saying the whole attack was barbaric. We could not fight back because of our unprepared response. Sunday was a day of leisure plus the surprise of the attack. I helped here and there as best I could. Just between the first and second attack word came over the loud speaker that all members of the VA division were to go over the side each carrying a box of 30-caliber ammunition and meet a pick-up truck that was parked waiting for us behind the quay. Each box of ammunition weighed 130 pounds.
I went over the side as ordered but ran into some problems. Around the ship were what is known as “blisters.” These blisters extend the length of the ship on both sides and go from the keel to about 5-feet above the water line. They are about 18-inches wide. Their purpose is to protect the ship from torpedoes. They are used as diesel tanks and when the diesel fuel is used, they are filled with water to keep the ship on an even keel.
I had just gone over the side and was standing on the blister when an order came that a second attack was in the process. My only protection was to get as close to the side of the ship as possible. Meantime about 8 feet above my head was a 5-inch anti-aircraft gun manned by marines. This gun is encased in a metal shield to protect the gunners. Every time the gun was fired over my head the noise was deafening. My only protection was a World War I helmet. To this day, my hearing is very impaired and I blame it on the firing of the gun.
To get to the waiting pick-up one had to walk a diesel pipeline about 20 feet. The pipeline was about a foot in diameter and coated with a thin layer of diesel fuel, which made it very slippery. Can one feature carrying a 130-pound box of ammunition about 20 feet on a diesel-coated pipeline? I made it but I know of two who did not. Their only despair was the loss of a box of ammunition and a diesel bath. By this time most of the water around the battleships was covered with diesel fuel that had escaped from the Arizona when she exploded. A lot of it was burning but fortunately, the fire had not reached the area where we were. When we arrived at the given spot, a pick-up was waiting for us. We boarded the pick-up and proceeded towards the air station.
Our planes were equipped with 30-caliber machine guns. One in the rear seat and one fired from the front cockpit. Since the air base was low on 30-caliber bullets, they had hopes of us replenishing their supply and to arm our aircraft. To my surprise, all three of our aircraft were totally destroyed as well as many others. The ammunition we had carried over there was practically useless. We had no guns to arm.
The next few days I spent aboard the air base. Those of us that were able to work repaired as many planes as possible. Then I was ordered back aboard ship. Another hair-raising experience. Since the ship was so close to the burning Arizona the heat had scorched the paint on all the compartments on the stern of the Tennessee. This was the officer’s quarters and most of their belongings were destroyed. The next few days were spent trying to get all compartments livable again. The compartments had been damaged by fire, water and most of all smoke. Soon after that the ship was freed and ready for sea duty without any aircraft. We went back to the states, picked up three new aircraft and headed back out to sea.
My brother and I were very fortunate. We suffered no physical injuries but over the years have survived the mental problems. May no one ever have that experience again.