James Leamon Forbis enlisted in the Navy in 1939. When war came on 7 December 1941, he was on the front line of history, serving as a coxswain on board the USS Arizona (BB-39) when the bombs started dropping. He survived the attack and went on to serve through World War II on board the destroyers Craven (DD-382), Kalk (DD-611), and De Haven (DD-727). He retired from the Navy as a chief boatswain’s mate in 1961. In the following excerpt from his U.S. Naval Institute interview, he vividly recounts the fateful events of the Day of Infamy from Ground Zero.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, I was aboard the battleship Arizona. The bugler went on the fantail for morning colors. He had already sounded first call, which was scheduled for five minutes to eight. He was standing there awaiting eight o’clock when some planes came out of the east. They were coming right out of the early morning sun and it was real bright. He couldn’t see anything but he said, “Boy, I wish I was up there in one of them planes flying around this morning.” I glanced up but couldn’t see anything because of the blinding sun, and I said, “Yeah, I guess it’s pretty nice up there.” Then other planes started coming in over Hickam Field and the naval shipyard. They were dropping bombs as they came. Then they veered sharply to the left.
Now, we were expecting the big carrier Enterprise [CV-6] to come in the day before and she hadn’t come, so we thought, maybe those are Enterprise planes. They were always playing war games out there, the Army against the Navy, in surprise attacks. So we thought, maybe it’s the crazy Army Air Forces. They don’t know when to quit. They even have to get after us on a Sunday morning. They probably had sandbags with flares that’d make smoke.
But then the bombs were dropping and you could hear them exploding and bang!—one of them hit the bow of the ship. I told somebody with me, “Boy somebody’s going to catch hell now. They hit the ship.” I still thought it was practice, but it was awful heavy for practice, because it jarred that battleship.
Very shortly we knew they were Japanese planes. Our battle stations were in number four gun turret, which was on the after part of the ship. So we went down to the third deck and aft to the powder-handling room and then started climbing up the ladder to the gun turret. I was on the ladder when a bomb hit the top of the turret. It ricocheted off and knocked me down to the lower handling room. There was a kind of flash and we got smoked out. You couldn’t breathe that old stink in there, that smell. I got burned, but not bad. We all got scorched. Then we went over into number three lower handling room. The compressed air lines had broken there, and the compressed air was blowing the smoke out so you could breathe and live.
The last word that come over the public-address system was, “Fire on the quarterdeck.”
The ship was down by the bow and sitting on the bottom. Everything was really in a sad shape. It was torn up. There was bombing, burning, and people were in the water. Some boats were retrieving them. Everyone was leaving the ship. There were about a half-dozen of us getting some life rafts over the side to the men in the water. Some of them had been blown into the water and some of them had jumped.
A few of us remained on board ship. We had briefly discussed the powder magazines. The 14-inch powder was directly below us. Once in a while somebody would say something about it. We knew the magazines were overdue. They were going to go. And we knew that if they did go, that deck would blow us awful high. So we got all the rafts over, and because there was nothing left for us to do we jumped into the water.
The old boat boom on the starboard side had been blown or knocked loose from its anchoring. It was still attached but it was in the water under the oil and you couldn’t see it. I jumped in and hit it. I was almost knocked out, just about unconscious. One of the guys had helped me recover and encouraged me until I finally could swim on my own. I started out half cuckoo from hitting that boat boom. He stayed with me. We swam over to the boat landing through the oil. I don’t know how I made it. The good Lord was looking out for us.
When I got in that boat and looked back I got the full impact of what had happened in the harbor. I’ll tell you, I couldn’t believe I was alive.
The U.S. Naval Institute’s Oral History Program has collected, organized, and indexed the recollections of prominent naval servicemen and servicewomen since 1969. To learn more about Naval Institute oral histories, visit the program’s web page at www.usni.org/heritage/oral-history.