The USS Nevada (BB-36) was scheduled to stay at sea over the weekend of 7 December 1941. At least that was the rumor we heard in the junior officers’ mess. However, there were some reported submarine contacts, so it was decided—again, according to rumor—that because of these contacts we would return early to Pearl Harbor. It’s intriguing to think that perhaps we were unnecessarily driven into Pearl when we might have stayed out and what came that Sunday morning.
I had gone ashore the night of 6 December and bought an artificial Christmas tree. Some of my friends decided to stay ashore all night, and after we got into the war the next morning, I was beginning to wish I’d stayed with them.
Because I slept late on Sunday morning, the first thing I became aware of was the alarm clanging, a little before 0800. This wasn’t unusual because we were always being subjected to man-overboard drills or "fire on the Arizona," or something else at odd times. So I thought it was a drill. As soon as I heard the alarm, I started to get into my clothes. I always had everything hanging up nearby. I’d just put on one sock and was putting on the second when, all of a sudden, I heard a boom and a rat-a- tat. The whole place seemed to erupt, and a fellow ran by my room saying, "It’s the real thing. It’s the Japs.”
My roommate, Ensign Joe Taussig, had left our room some time before to stand watch on the quarter deck. We never did see each other that day, but I had the unhappy task of requesting medical assistance for him shortly after the action began. As a result of the wounds he suffered that day, he ultimately lost his leg.1 In my hurry, I stepped right through my sock, put on my slippers, dungarees, and officer's hat and went to my battle station. It was five decks below the main deck in the main battery plotting room.
Normally, I was the most junior officer in the plotting room. Two other officers were senior to me, but neither of them was on board ship that morning. This left me the only officer at that battle station. Eventually, we stayed in the plotting room until about 1500 that afternoon. In the meantime, the ship sustained one torpedo and five bomb hits. She not only listed but ultimately was beached and sank. We went right down with her, and we were actually lower than the surface of the water in our position beneath the main deck.
Partway through the engagement, I received a call to send about half my men topside to man the guns. We'd had a lot of people killed up there on the 5-inch antiaircraft guns. I picked out those who were manning the least useful phone circuits. We weren't really directing the big guns, because there was no need for them, but we were serving as a communications center. We were connected with the tops, the turrets, and a number of other sections of the ship.
This was a real Hobson's choice, because I felt that those men who were singled out to go topside thought they were going to their deaths. And 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 a moment when I was faced with what seemed to me at the time a life-and-death decision that had to be made immediately. Most of the men in the plotting room were older than I, a junior ensign at the time. They'd been in the Navy many more years, but there wasn't a murmur. People just said, "Aye, aye, Sir," and went. Right then, I was struck by the value of military protocol—including the importance of relatively small items such as saluting and gold braid on the hat—in training for this type of response. All these things, I think, pay off at a moment of crisis.
In the course of all this, with the ship sinking and listing, I was getting reports from topside that the Oklahoma had turned over. At this point, we were canting maybe 12 or 15°, and it seemed a lot more than that down where we were. To hear that another ship had turned turtle certainly didn't contribute to our peace of mind. Then came 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. We heard that it was just about to blow, and our firefighters couldn't get any water to 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, one's imagination takes him a long way in a situation such as that. We were without fresh air for a good long time, and ultimately the main power failed. We shifted to auxiliary power, and it produced an eerie green light. People took off their shirts, and the scene resembled that in a submarine movie with men lying around, sweat on their bodies, and bathed in green light. But we were manning the phones, and I think we were performing a useful function.
Along about 1500, water started coming in through the door by which we had entered the plotting room. We knew the ship had sunk, and we knew we were under water pressure. The plates were starting to go above us, and water was beginning to drip from the overhead. In essence, we were in a big air bubble.
I called up the executive officer, told him that it was impossible for us to hold on more than a few seconds longer, and requested permission to secure. He told us to go ahead, so I passed the word. Everybody took off his phones, wrapped them up, and put them in place on the bulkhead just as he always had. By then, water was rushing past everyone’s feet, but the men were so trained that they did things exactly as they’d done them a hundred times before.
Then we opened the door to the adjacent central station, which was filled with smoke. We didn’t really know where we were going from there. Everybody filed in, and finally I closed the door behind us. Going up from the space was a communication tube that ran all the way up to the conning tower. It was just full of wires, and normally nobody ever climbed up inside, but all ten of us managed it that day.
As we got toward the top of the tube, 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.
The above account is based on recollections recorded by Captain Merdinger as part of the Naval Institute’s Oral History Program.
1. Captain Joseph K. Taussig, Jr., USN (Ret.), "I Remember Pearl Harbor," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, December 1972, pp. 18-24.