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Captain Charles J. Merdinger, USN (Ret.) (1918-2013)

Captain Charles J. Merdinger, USN (Ret.)Based on five interviews conducted by John T. Mason Jr. from December 1971 through March 1972, the volume contains 299 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1974 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

Merginger escaped injury as an ensign in the USS Nevada (BB-36) when she was bombed at Pearl Harbor. He transferred to the Alabama (BB-60) and was in Murmansk Run and later participated in bombardment of Nauru and Tarawa in the Pacific. He then studied at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute in preparation for entering the Civil Engineer Corps. He handled construction for the CEC in Panama Canal Zone. In 1947 was appointed a Rhodes Scholar and spent two years at Oxford University, studying and producing a dissertation that was published as a book titled Civil Engineering Through the Ages. Later duties were: NAS Miramar, California; Point Hueneme, Fleet Activities, Yokosuka, Japan; head of English, History and Government Department, USNA. He headed Seabees and Multinational Force in Vietnam in 1967-68, and was CO Western Division, NavFac Engineering Command in San Bruno, California, before retirement in 1970.

 

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

 


 

Captain Merdinger: The first thing that I became aware of was the alarm clanging. Well, this wasn’t unusual because we were always being subjected to “man overboard” drill or “fire on the Arizona” or something else, at odd times, so I thought it was a drill when I first heard the alarm.

It was Sunday morning, and I was sleeping and intending to go to church about half an hour later, so this was going to be my late day for sleeping in. It was almost 8 o’clock.

John T. Mason, Jr.:  How large a complement was on board?

Captain Merdinger: Gee, I’m very vague about that too, but it could have been anywhere from 1500 to 1800 men, something like that.

At any rate, I heard the alarm and started to get into my clothes. I always had everything hanging up ready. I had my dungarees there and cap and everything else. Well, I’d just put on one sock and was putting on the second sock, when all of a sudden I heard a boom and a ratatatat, and all of a sudden the whole place seemed to erupt, and a fellow ran outside my room and said, "It’s the real thing. It's the Japs.’’

I stepped right through my sock in my hurry, put on my slippers and my dungarees and my officer’s hat and I went to my battle station, which was about five decks below the main deck in the plotting room. That was the last I ever saw of my room, because subsequent to that a bomb hit it, and pretty much dispersed everything that was there. Ultimately we found my safe and my sword, several weeks later, when the ship was raised, and even some of my clothing was still around. But it wasn’t in very good shape. Not only had a bomb landed in the room, but then the room was under water for several weeks.

Well, I went to my battle station. My roommate was Ensign Joe Taussig, by the way, and he was up on deck, had the watch up there, and as you may know, as a result of the wounds he suffered that day, ultimately lost his leg.

I went to my battle station. Normally I was the most junior officer there. There were two other officers more senior that I, but neither of them was aboard ship that morning, so this left me the senior officer in the plotting room.

John T. Mason, Jr.: Was the Captain aboard?USS Nevada (BB-36) with torpedo damage from the attack on Pearl Harbor

Captain Merdinger: The captain was not aboard. The most senior officer aboard was a reserve lieutenant commander. If memory serves me right, I think he was the damage control officer. But he was the one who took charge of the ship. We had, oh, a captain of Marines aboard, there may have been one or two Navy lieutenants, maybe a j.g. Everybody else was an ensign. In other words, this ship fought the battle of Pearl Harbor, got under way largely with ensigns and chiefs and petty officers and seamen. All the senior officers were ashore. This was natural. It was a peacetime effort and a lot of them had their families over there and they were with them.

I was in the plotting room with the group until about 3 o’clock that afternoon, during which time the ship sustained one torpedo and five bomb hits, so it not only listed but it ultimately sank, and I went right down with it, as I say, five decks below the main deck.

Now, part way through the engagement I received a call from the people topside to send about half of my men topside to man the guns. We’d had a lot of people killed up there on the five-inch guns and they needed men.

John T. Mason, Jr.: From the bombs?

Captain Merdinger: Yes, Well, it might have been - heaven knows, there were machine guns shooting all over the place. Some of them might even have got hit by our own machine guns for all I know. But  whatever it was, there was a lot of attrition up there.

So I picked out the men who were manning the phones that were really least useful to us. By this time, we weren’t really directing the big guns. I mean, there was no need for that. But we were serving as communications center for the rest of the ship, because we were connected with the tops and the turrets and with a number of other sec­tions of the ship. Well, those phones that were least important to us - those were the men I selected. "All right, Jones, Smith, and so on, you go topside."

This was a real Hobson’s choice, because I know that those men who were singled out to go thought they were going to their deaths, and I know the ones who were staying thought they were staying to their deaths, because it looked as though we might get trapped down there. So this was one of these moments when you’re faced with a life and death decision but it had to be done in a split second. And after all, most of these people were older than I, they'd been in the Navy many more years, and yet there was never a murmur, "let's take a vote," or this, that or the other tiring. People just "aye aye, sir" and they did it, I think again almost in the space of a very short time, I realized the value of the gold braid on the hat, the saluting, the differentiation that we make in military protocol. All these things, I think, pay off at a moment of crisis, because as I say by virtue of experience or age or anything else I certainly wasn't the senior man there. But nevertheless, these people in essence went out to what they thought might be their death, or stayed, without any kind of conversation at all. This is the way it was and they were used to this kind of military discipline. I think what it might have been with a rabble down there that hadn't been subjected to this kind of background and discipline.

Well, as it turned out –

John T. Mason, Jr.: Had you finally lifted anchor, or was she - ?

Captain Merdinger: By this time I guess we had. I'm a little vague now as to the timing of these events, because we were the only battleship to get under way, as you probably know. We started to steam out, and then we were just getting lower in the water. I think this torpedo had really done us serious damage. And it was decided then to beach at Nevada Point, so we went over there, and I don't recall at what time. We could well have been over on the beach by this time, I don't know. As it was, we ultimately settled almost to the main deck, and I might repeat that we were about five decks below that point.

Well, there was another time when somebody undogged the door and came in, and he came in with a whiff of smoke, and he came in gasping "Gas." We thought perhaps somehow we were the subject of gas attack by the Japanese. There were all kinds of rumors flying around - the Japanese are landing on the other side of Oahu, and so on - but again these were just pieces of information that somebody dreamed up somewhere. We were sitting down there and I was thinking, my golly I’ve left my pistol in my room in my safe, what a place, now that the war has started, for it to be up there - such little thoughts I suppose float through your head.

Well, in the course of all this, with the ship sinking and listing, I was getting reports from topside that the Oklahoma had just turned over. At this point we were canting maybe 12, 15 degrees, and it seemed a lot more than that down where we were, and to hear that the other ship had turned turtle didn’t work for our peace of mind, of course.

Then a report that the Arizona had blown up. I was getting reports that there was a fire in one of the magazines very close to us and it was just about to blow and they couldn’t get any water into it. So it seemed that everything that was happening to these other ships in some way seemed to be happening to us at the same time. Of course, your imagination will take you a good long way on something like that as well.

We were without fresh air for a good long time, and ultimately the main power failed. We shifted to auxiliary power, and developed this eerie green light. People took off their shirts, and ultimately it looked like one of these submarine pictures with people lying around, sweat on their bodies and this green light. But we were manning the phone and I think we were performing a useful function.

During the course of all these hours down there, certain thoughts ran through my head, little prayers, little thoughts, whatever, and the first was, as I recall, I hope that nothing happens to me, physi­cally, personally, that I don’t get wounded; and then secondly, again in this very personal frame of mind, well, if something does happen and I do get wounded, I hope it won't be a permanent loss, an arm or a leg, some­thing like that. Finally, in the final stage, I thought perhaps we might just run out of time, and if I was going to go, I wanted to go like an officer and a gentleman. I steeled myself to go this way.

Well, fortunately I never really had to face up to the ultimate truth of it, but at least in mind’s eye I faced it at that point.

I might add that some people in the other plotting rooms didn't make it out, so we were kind of lucky on that score.

Along about 3 o'clock, the water started coming in by the regu­lar door by which we had entered this room.

John T. Mason, Jr.: You were already sunk down.

Captain Merdinger: We were already sunk. We knew we were sunk, and we knew we were under water pressure because it was beginning to drip through, the plates were beginning to go on top of us and the water was beginning to drip from the overhead, so we knew we were flooded above. In essence, we were in a big air bubble there.

John T. Mason, Jr.: When and how could a command have come to you to abandon that plotting room?

Captain Merdinger: We still were connected by phone to topside, to the commanding officer. By this time I guess the commanding officer had come aboard, and the executive officer and a number of senior officers were there. But then the water started coming in by this door by which we’d entered, and it was really coming in. The gaskets had given way. And now it was swishing around our ankles.

John T. Mason, Jr.: That was the way you’d exit as well?

Captain Merdinger: Well, there were two doors, one the regular door by which we’d entered, and this is the one that was giving way now, and the other one which went into central station, and we weren't quite sure what was over there. We did know, though, that the water was coming in this one.

I called up to the executive officer, and told him that it was impossible for us to hold this more than a few minutes longer, and we requested permission to secure it. He said yes, go ahead. So I gave the word. Everybody took off his phones and wrapped them up in the way that he always had done, and put them on the wall in the normal place that he always put them away- this with the water rushing past everybody’s feet. Yet they were so trained that they did it exactly the way they'd done it a hundred times before, put those phones right back in their regular slot.

Then we opened the door to central station to go that way, and we didn't really know where we were going from there. Well, every­body filed in, and        finally I closed the door   behind us. This was a pretty smoke-filled place there. A few people were lying around. Going up from it was a communication tube that ran all the way up to the conning tower. This was just full of wires, and normally nobody ever went up this thing, but we all managed it that particular day. So up everybody went, and about halfway up –

John T. Mason, Jr.: Were there steps?

Captain Merdinger: Yes, there was a ladder there, but it was practically com­pletely hidden by all those wires, because as I say it was not generally used at all. But as we got towards the top of the thing, I smelled fresh air for the first time in all those hours, and that was the greatest blessing. I just never felt anything so wonderful as that breath of fresh air.

Then we got out on the ship and looked around, and it seemed as if there were just dead bodies everywhere. So many people had just been burned up, they were all black –

John T. Mason, Jr.: When you say we, how many were there making this escape?

Captain Merdinger: Oh, there could have been ten of us, something like that, maybe less. But we got out and looked all over the harbor, and you’ve never seen anything like it. Nobody had ever seen anything like it in their lives. Just ships on fire everywhere you looked. Our own ship was on fire. Smoke coming out of every conceivable place. See, among other things, although these were metal ships we’d built up several inches of paint on them, and this paint just burned for days. This was true all over the harbor.

But the thing that remains with me to this day was the smell of diesel oil.

 

(Note: Due to edits, corrections, and/or amendments to the original transcription draft, there are some inconsistencies between the recording and the text.)


 
 

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