Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941

Eye-Witness Account by Lt. Richard Mueller Nixon, USN

Gunnery Officer, USS West Virginia


Sunday, Dec. 7th


On watch with the Shore Patrol until 0400 in the morning when I turned in at my room at the Alexander Young (hotel) in Honolulu: About 0800, my slumber was disturbed by explosions and sounds which closely resembled gun fire. A radio was blaring with some sort of a melodrama across the way. About 0830, the blaring of the radio again awoke me and I realized that which I had previously heard was not drama but grim reality. The radio announcer again and again repeated: “This is not a drill, this is a real raid, keep off the streets and don’t use your telegram (telephone?).” An instant later, the phone rang and the voice at the other end told me to make my way back to the ship as best I could. It was unbelievable – I even debated whether I should shave before returning. Then my common sense asserted itself and I hastily packed essentials in a traveling bag and remaining gear in a suitcase to check at the Young. In perhaps ten minutes I was at the YMCA for transportation back. Already MPs were ordering people off the sidewalks and the streets were filled with racing cars. I was stuffed in a cab along with seven others and we made for the Navy Yard pell mell. Once I remember telling the driver to slow down because we wouldn’t be of much service dead, but my warning didn’t seem to alter his maniacal driving to any extent.


As we approached Pearl Harbor, huge columns of smoke could be seen arising and I, like the others, assumed the oil tanks had been bombed. On arrival at the dock we learned it was my ship, the West Virginia, from which the smoke emerged. She had been hit hard and was afire. From the landing Ens. Smith staggered up completely covered in oil and he told us the West Virginia had been abandoned and was completely surrounded by oil fires. He also told us of the death of our captain. On the dock was a milling crowd of blue jackets and across the way could be seen a capsized battleship. Smith told me the West Virginia had fired all the ammunition she had ready but an early torpedo had put the ammunition supply out.


Ran into Lt. Atkins on the deck and he suggested I attempt to scatter the crowd at the dock as a precautionary measure. (I was in uniform.) Attempts to do so were rather futile since the men were still too dazed to believe what lay in front of them. Then we decided we had best gather together a fire fighting party and commandeer a boat which we did. As we got out in the harbor, the true extent of the damage unfolded itself. The West Virginia was afire astern and ahead and the Arizona just astern was one sheet of flame. The Oklahoma ahead was turned over.


We landed at Ford Island and attempted to make small fire parties each in charge of a chief. Again, we had too little knowledge of what was required and the men were too confused to permit an effective organization. Two fire parties were sent to the administration building while Atkins and I made our way over Ford Island to a point abreast of the Tennessee where we crossed to the Tennessee by a pipe line. The fire on the West Virginia was being fought vigorously and I estimated my services would be more valuable on the Tennessee in the AA battery. I reported to the gunnery officer and the Air Defense Officer, Lt. J.G. Alford, asked me to check the battery setup, disposition of ammunition, etc. I made the rounds and everywhere was apparent the magnificent manner in which the youngsters on the guns were responding. A GM i/c on the starboard battery was running up and down, everywhere at once, encouraging and straightening out difficulties where he could. The major part of the raid was over at this time and only an occasional plane was engaged. Before we knew it, the time was three in the afternoon and we began the job of organizing the crew into battery watches. The West Virginia was still blazing alongside, and astern the Arizona was enveloping the ship in a continual pall of smoke.


Monday, Dec. 8


West Virginia still afire but under control: Smoke from the Arizona is still pretty terrific. Everything in my room aboard the West Virginia is a total loss but fortunately today I was able to get a suit of dungarees and some underwear and I got a bath. All of us eat together in the Junior Officers’ mess and the fare is rugged but delicious. After all day in the open air, we all eat like horses. This morning a plane flew over without lights. One opened up on it and an instant later, the sky was filled with tracers. One wonders where they all fall.


Tuesday, Dec. 9


Fire out on the West Virginia and well under control on the Arizona. We started rounding up AA people from the West Virginia and finally collected seven officers and a hundred men, enough for a magnificent watch list on the Tennessee. People want to strip the West Virginia – every ship in the bay is over for something. With permission of the Exec, we gave the Tennessee a couple of machine guns, the California a five-inch breech mechanism and some three-inch parts. The Tennessee had the inside track however and got all usable SP telephones, six binoculars, goggles and miscellaneous director parts. These certainly are a fine bunch of officers on the Tennessee.


The stories are starting to come out now. They tell how Claude Ricketts and Hancock saved the ship by personally counter-flooding on the starboard side. Ricketts and Freddie White were almost lost when they went up to get the captain at the last moment before abandoning ship. They were trapped by fires on the bridge after they found the captain had died and had to cross in a line to the crane. Ricketts slid down a fire hose to the boat deck. The Nevada, it was said, heroically got underway and steamed out full blast at about 0900 but unfortunately was dive bombed and had to be beached. A ghastly story (came) from the Oklahoma about officers escaping through ports when she turned over. The chaplain got stuck and went down with the ship. They are still getting live men out of the Oklahoma through the bottom. It sounds fantastic but they walk out just as though nothing was wrong. I rescued my bag from the Shore Patrol Office today with two clean suits of whites in it and some shaving gear. Perhaps some day I will be able to get the suitcase from the Young.


Wednesday 10 Dec


Nolen, my CGM on the West Virginia, did a magnificent job of salvaging the five-inch guns aboard. I looked in my room just for luck and all I could find whole was my sword, and it was distorted completely out of shape. A dozen pairs of silk stockings for Mary (his wife), Mary’s tables and years of accumulated little treasures perished. I did recover my clock from Sky Control and a notebook. What has happened to the rumor that two aircraft carriers were sunk by the Army Sunday night? It was reported by Cinc Pac and must have been authorized but not a word in the papers.


Thursday, Dec. 11


Transferred to the Maryland under temporary orders from the Pooling Officer. The Maryland was not nearly as fortunate as the Tennessee in getting additional men. They are still on watch and watch, and the poor devils look almost dead. The Maryland is scarcely damaged at all compared to the West Virginia or the Tennessee. I go on the next watch after coming on board.


Friday, Dec. 12


I heard today about the submarine that got inside Pearl Harbor. It was a neat little two-man job equipped with net cutters, two torpedoes, a device for attaching in to a vessel and a charge of TNT for the last suicidal blow. Apparently, the story of suicide ships had some foundation. I also heard an excellent resume of what happened. The first flight of six planes flew directly over the fleet and dive bombed Pearl Harbor. Almost immediately afterwards a number of torpedo bombers made their approach from Officers Club landing and got three or more torpedoes on every outboard ship. The Oklahoma got seven and the West Virginia four. The torpedo bombers turned and strafed the battleships, and the dive bombers came over and dive bombed. A few minutes later the heavy bombers came over and dropped their eggs. The bombs penetrated very effectively but appeared to have very poor luge (?) action. Still on watch and watch.


Saturday, 13 Dec.


Rumors of another two-man submarine in the harbor and, as a result, ventilation will be completely shut off all night to effect maximum, watertight integrity. Worked like a dog today along with other Maryland officers to get a watch in three started for the men and a watch in four for officers. The system went into effect at 4:00 in the afternoon and it took Herculean efforts to keep it going but I hope it will stick. Heaven be praised, I got my suitcase from the Alexander Young today with my brown suit and some additional socks, etc. Bit by bit, I am accumulating another outfit. Very few of us have the privilege of starting out anew on our wardrobes.


Sunday 14 Dec.


One week since the fiasco and today was very quiet. I received Mary’s letter today and I know what a dreadful strain she must under. I do hope she has my clipper by now assuring her that all is well. News of the two-man submarine is dwindling – I gather they have it cornered, for every once in a while, a depth charge is dropped in the far reaches of the harbor. I heard today the entrance was alive with submarines. Apparently they lie in the mud during the day and operate only at night. Tonight a destroyer reported he was being tracked by a submarine outside the entrance. There are a number of destroyers out there, and between them they should be able to handle the situation. The watch in three seems to be working all right. Tomorrow it looks as though we will have to stretch a point further and go into watch in four.


Tuesday, 16 Dec.


All quiet on the war front. Tonight the Nevada gave us a thrill when she reported a group of unidentified dive bombers off the quarter at 1800. Coming from the wrong direction at the wrong altitude, we felt almost sure it was the Japs. Another good story today: A dispatch to Wake asked if they needed any more ammunition. The answer was “Affirmative, need more ammunition and more Japs.” Still struggling to get organized. Now they want us to go to sea prepared to man the secondary, main or AA batteries watch in four, whichever is the more appropriate. Somebody is going to lose their mind figuring that one out. Equipment and salvaged materials are flowing around like ants over a sugar bowl but we can’t seem to get our fingers on any of it.


Wednesday 17 Dec.


Another letter from Mary today and still she hasn’t heard whether I am living or not. Apparently mail service in these days is not so hot. CinC was relieved today as everyone anticipated although it appears he may have been made the goat. There is no question the new Cinc Pac is a master strategist if there ever were one. Got my pay accounts today, and my claim is about ready for presentation. Once more, I am ready to face the world anew. This life seems somewhat like a picnic if there weren’t the grim spectacle of the Oklahoma, West Virginia and California confronting us every time we step on deck, not to mention the Arizona. Nary a sign of the Jap since the 7th, and Com Fourteen seems confident of giving us ample warning of his approach. God grant that his confidence is justifiable.


Friday, December. 19th


Twelve days of war now and not a sign of the Jap since that fateful Sunday morning. We seem to be getting used to the idea of war routine. The first blow was so powerful that anything thereafter couldn’t be worse. I must confess that war adds a certain zest to your watches which wasn’t there before. The underground channels are alive with rumors that we are moving out shortly. The crew is getting a little restless with the inaction especially in view of the excitement going on west of here. Actually, it appears unlikely we will head west under the present circumstances which leaves the only possible alternative the West Coast. I must confess that I would relish a sight of my two daughters before the big push. The Ruskies are going to town on the Western (Eastern?) Front, the British are beating the drums in Libya, but in Malaya things look tough. However, the Japs will find out for themselves they are not fighting Chinamen now – they are up against some real fighting men. The men hold the Japs in the greatest of contempt and would like nothing better than measuring an arm’s (?) length with a couple of their battleships for example. They (the Japs) have set in motion a train of events which will practically wipe the race off the earth. The arrogant little yellow fellows are fanatical and before the war is ended most of them will be in the grave.


Saturday, Dec. 20


Tonight, we got underway, presumably for the West Coast although no word has yet been passed. Destroyers were so thick at Pearl Harbor entrance one wondered if a submarine could stick up its periscope without sticking it through the bottom of a destroyer. Once an alarm was raised and a couple of depth charges dropped back in our quarter. Rumor has it they got a submarine but you never can tell. Apparently, a lot of new aviators are flowing into Pearl Harbor because they are getting careless about their sectors. I suppose it is impossible to bring home to them the point that every time they fly over the battleships there are literally hundreds of guns trained on them and some day an itchy finger will let go. When one starts, the whole works will open up. We shot down four of our own in a ghastly fiasco the night of the 7th and the same thing will happen again I suppose.


Tuesday, 23 Dec., 1941, at sea


The news is pretty generally out now that Bremerton is our destination. The air is starting to have a bite in it and the injection water is running icy cold. All is quiet. Periodically we have a submarine scare and maneuver violently for a short period – then everything is quiet again. Launched planes for scouting today and they did succeed in locating a tanker although it was an American tanker and of course not fair prey. We are well outside steamer lanes and it would indeed be surprising if we encountered much of anything. Some ape started the rumor that the radio had listed the Maryland as sunk. Poor Mary – if the rumor were true- she’ll think I can’t get on a ship that will stay afloat to save myself.


Wednesday, 24 Dec. 1941


Christmas Eve at sea and at war: Daresay Santa will encounter a few difficulties in getting to our Christmas stockings this year. It looks like just another night although coincidentally it’s my first full night in during the past week. (We call it a full night in when we sleep until half an hour before sunrise.) The weather is downright cold now and I added to my slender hoard of belongings a blue jacket’s jersey and a pair of woolen gloves. It looks not at all well but it does provide warmth.


Friday, December 27, 1941


Underground signs portend our approach to land but so secret is our destination that we still talk in whispers about our well known by now destination. Only those in the know have access to the charts. The weather has steadily been getting colder. Every day my “watch” uniform takes an additional item. Only today I added arctics and long drawers. I suppose the weather will now be an unsafe subject in letters since the fact it’s getting cold could imply only Bremerton (WA) or the northern route to Japan. And perhaps it won’t be so long before we will be traveling that same northern route. A glance at the map is sufficient to show the possibilities in such a move especially if it should appear that their resources are being strained to the south. In any case, it would look like a month of reorganization on the coast before we start. The direct approach is obviously blocked by many grim possibilities and it seems very unlikely we will attempt it without months of preparation and blasting of Jap Islands in the approaches. I hope we shall soon see.


Jan. 26

Navy Yard, Puget Sound


Arrived safely on Dec. 30th: Been here ever since. Doesn’t look like we’ll be out for another month.


Transcribed by Ann Nixon Gazourian, Daughter


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