From: Oregon, USA
December 7, 1941
USS West Virginia, Battleship Row, Pearl Harbor
It looked like it was going to be a nice morning. Though the nearby mountains were wreathed in mist only a few scattered clouds drifted over Pearl Harbor. Bill Bonderman crossed the fantail of West Virginia with two wooden folding chairs under each arm, heading for the rows of chairs already set out for the morning service. He could see the chaplain nearby talking with a pair of sailors.
Battleship Row was a grand sight in the morning sunshine. Ahead of West Virginia was Oklahoma. Tennessee was inboard and looking out over the stern Bonderman could see Arizona, with the repair ship Vestal tied up alongside. The big warships looked trim and neat. Bonderman took a moment to admire the view.
Something caught his eye to the southeast. Out over the Southeast Loch a swarm of planes was heading his way, unusually low. Bonderman watched them for a moment, puzzled. His mind raced through possible explanations, discarding each in turn and then reaching for a new one like a man trying on a series of ill-fitting coats. Some kind of unannounced training exercise? A group of pilots out for an early morning joy-ride? Maybe, he thought, they were off-course and the pilots were just now realizing with dismay where they were and how many regs they were breaking.
The reality, that he was looking at an unhindered and picture-perfect attack run by hostile planes against his own ship, refused to occur to him. Even when torpedoes dropped with a splash from the four lead planes the truth still would not register. And then the first torpedo hit.
It struck aft and the shock threw Bonderman to the deck. He stood up, tasting blood from a cut inside his mouth. In an instant, it seemed, the peaceful Sunday morning had been turned into raging chaos. Men were running and yelling, the air rumbled with explosions, and planes buzzed overhead. Bonderman looked up and saw red circles on their wings. And then, finally, he knew what was going on.
Training took over and carried him through the shock. He turned and headed forward, heading for his post in the radio room. He had to get there, he had to broadcast a warning about the attack...
Above and slightly behind the torpedo bombers were more planes. These released their bombs and one landed neatly between turrets three and four. This time Bonderman kept his feet but flames leaped up almost instantly. The heat was searing. Fixed on his purpose, Bonderman skirted the inferno and continued forward. Then another bomb hit and Bonderman felt himself lifted up and into the air. With a kind of nightmare slowness he saw the rail pass beneath him and then he was out over the water. There was no sound but a kind of hissing white noise. He wondered almost idly where he was going and what would happen when he got there. Down, down he fell, turning once end over end. And then there was a stinging impact and water closed over his head.
Bonderman broke the surface, sputtering. Everything snapped back into focus. He looked around and oriented himself, then struck out past West Virginia's stern towards Ford Island. The precariousness of his position was appalling. He could feel the jolts of explosions transmitted through the water and knew that if a bomb or torpedo struck nearby the concussion would turn him to jelly. Not only that, oil was beginning to spread across the water. If that caught fire he would die an even more unpleasant death.
The sailor swam strongly but inexpertly, hindered by his clothing. Growing up in Lubbock had not afforded him many chances to learn to swim and in two years in the navy he had not tried to improve his skills. That may have been a mistake, he thought wryly as he clawed through the water.
Lord, he murmured to himself in silent prayer as he struggled along, I understand that you might be kind of busy right about now. But if you could send a break or two my way I surely would appreciate it. I've been tryin' to be a better man and if I get through this I'll try even harder. Your will be done, of course.
He swam into a patch of oil. The thick stuff fouled the inside of his mouth and stung his eyes. Bonderman spat and struggled on. The attack that was raging all around him faded away. His entire focus was on continuing forward, in finding the strength to continue to propel himself on. Now he was past Tennessee. The last thirty feet seemed to take him forever but at last his feet touched the silty bottom. On his hand and knees he floundered out of the water, his oil-streaked clothing sticking to him. He retched salt water and oil. A strong hand grasped his arm and pulled him upright. It was a burly man, shoeless, in dungarees and a t-shirt.
"They're strafing," yelled the man. Bonderman heard him only thinly through the hissing in his ears. "Come on!" He towed Bonderman away from the water and towards the shelter of some stacked crates. Bonderman followed, unspeakable grateful for the assistance. His legs felt like rubber. He reached the crates and flopped down behind them. Several other men were already crouched there. The man who had helped Bonderman disappeared, heading back towards the water.
Bonderman raised his head and looked back at his ship. He couldn't see much. Smoke was billowing up from Tennessee and it obscured his vision. All around were smoke and flames and through it all swarmed the Japanese planes, destroying almost at will. At least now some were being chased by bursts of anti-aircraft fire.
One of the men beside him yelled and pointed and Bonderman looked, just in time to see Maryland, anchored ahead of Tennessee, begin to roll onto her side. He watched as her bottom came into view. The water all around was filled with struggling men and to Bonderman's horror the oil that now covered the surface began to burn.
Tears filled his eyes. He shook his fist up at the swooping and diving planes.
"You bastards," he choked out, scarcely able to hear his own voice. "You'll pay for this. You'll pay!"
I would like to dedicate this entry to Dr. John Matheson. Growing up, I knew him as a friend and colleague of my father. But as a young man he was a crewman on USS West Virginia and was aboard her on that fateful Sunday morning. Dr. Matheson recognized my early interest in military history and to encourage me gave me some books from his own library, books I still have and treasure. I am happy to say that he is still with us.