Surrounded by smoke and flame, the battleship made for the open sea in an attempt to escape the devastation at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
By Mark J. Perry
Lieutenant Lawrence Ruff, USS Nevada’s communications officer, rose early that Sunday. He had turned in after the ship’s movie the night before, planning to attend church services on
the hospital ship Solace. Since his transfer to Nevada, he had lived on board as a “geographical bachelor,” leaving his wife back on the West Coast. They had both decided that life in the islands, while idyllic, was too uncertain and potentially dangerous for a family household. Emerging on deck, Ruff stepped into another day in paradise. High clouds lingered over the Koolau Mountain Range to the east, but the sun had already burned off most of the early morning overcast. Lieutenant Ruff joined Father Drinnan in the boat headed for Solace. Chugging in leisurely fashion across Pearl Harbor, the launch deposited the two officers at Solace’s accommodation ladder shortly before 7 a.m. Ruff waited in the officers’ lounge while Father Drinnan assisted in the preparation for services.
Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC), had most of his ships in port that Sunday. While his aircraft carriers were at sea delivering planes to some of America’s outlying Pacific islands, he felt it would be prudent to keep his remaining ships under the protective cover of land-based aircraft. Nests of destroyers bobbed together, tethered to mooring buoys about the harbor. The larger cruisers and auxiliaries rode alone or occupied the limited berthing space at the naval station. The heart of the fleet, seven battleships, rode at their moorings east of Ford Island. An eighth battleship, Pennsylvania, rested on blocks in dry dock No. 1.
While the smaller ships swayed gently in the wind, the broad-beamed, immense battleships were unaffected by the lapping water. In the atmosphere of rising tensions with Japan, Admiral Kimmel wanted to keep his fleet concentrated for any eventuality. For the officers and men, Sunday in port meant holiday routine, with liberty for most of the men and reduced work schedules for those standing watch. As the tropical heat rose and the clouds retreated, December 7, 1941, promised to be an excellent day for relaxation.
Nevada occupied berth Fox 8 alone at the northeast end of the line of battleships. At 583 feet long and 29,000 tons, Nevada and her sister ship Oklahoma were the smallest and oldest. Nevertheless, each possessed a powerful main battery of 10 14-inch guns. Twelve 5-inch guns, four 6-pounder anti-aircraft guns and eight .50-caliber machine guns provided anti-aircraft protection. Six Bureau Express oil-fired boilers powered a pair of Parsons turbines generating 25,000 shaft horsepower for a top speed of 20.5 knots.
While Lieutenant Ruff waited for services to start, the reveille watch on Nevada polished brass, piped away breakfast and woke the forenoon watch. The assistant quartermaster of the watch woke Ensign Joseph K. Taussig, Jr., the forenoon officer of the deck, at 7 a.m. Taussig was the junior gunnery officer in charge of the starboard anti-aircraft batteries. He did not have to relieve the watch until 7:45 and had ample time to dress and eat breakfast.
Ensign Taussig was descended from a proud naval family. His father and namesake had led the first American warships to Europe in World War I. Destroyer Squadron 8’s six ships had barely arrived in Ireland following a rough North Atlantic passage when British Vice Adm. Sir Lewis Bayly asked when they would be available. Commander Taussig answered confidently, “We are ready now, sir.” Truly a fine example for the young Taussig to live up to.
Taussig relieved the watch promptly at 7:45. His first duty of the day was to execute colors at 8 a.m. A 23-member band and color guard, with proper holiday colors for Sunday, stood ready. Taussig had to precisely follow the lead of the senior officer present afloat, Rear Adm. William R. Furlong on the minesweeper Oglala. At the proper signal, they would raise the national ensign aft and the blue, white-starred jack forward and play the national anthem, simultaneously. Taussig was determined to execute this ceremony in precise military fashion. The rest of the watch was easy in comparison. First call to colors sounded at 7:55. Few on deck noticed the planes buzzing around the harbor. The watch piped colors at 8 a.m., the flags went up and the band played. Only what they thought to be an inconsiderate Army aviator roaring low over Battleship Row marred the ceremony.
But this was no ill-timed Army drill. At 7:40 a.m. Japanese naval aircraft, led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, approached Kahuku Point, the northernmost tip of the island of Oahu. There, the main force broke into smaller attack groups, each proceeding to its primary target. Fuchida, in a Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber, accompanied the high-level bombers. Nevada was his plane’s target. Torpedo bombers, dive bombers and high-level bombers formed up northwest of Kaena Point at 7:50. Five minutes later, the first bombs began to fall on both ships and Oahu’s shore installations. Midway through the “Star-Spangled Banner” on Nevada, the first bomb exploded on Ford Island’s seaplane ramp.
Hard on the heels of the first blast came several more. A torpedo struck USS Arizona, just ahead of Nevada. As the B5N torpedo bomber (later given the Allied code name of Kate) pulled up over Nevada, its rear gunner sprayed the fantail, shredding the flag but, amazingly, missing the tight ranks of bandsmen. Through shock, discipline or habit, the band members finished the anthem before rushing to their battle stations. Ships’ klaxons sounded all over the harbor, mixed with the wail of air-raid sirens from the nearby airfields. Smoke from fires and spray from near-misses obscured the sights of gunners bringing their mounts into action.
Ensign Taussig rushed through the press of men to his battle station in the starboard anti-aircraft director. From there, he took charge of Nevada’s defensive fire. The regularly manned fore and aft .50-caliber machine guns chattered, and a single 5-inch gun barked. Taussig plugged his sound-powered phones into the net, linking him with the other anti-aircraft stations. He found many of them already on the line. One 5-inch mount had been manned at the beginning of the raid for its daily systems check. Taussig calmly passed orders while guiding his director from target to target, but the system was inadequate to handle so many attackers. Surprised men scrambled up from below, struggling into their clothes. Shortly after 8 o’clock, most of the guns were manned and firing but lacked good overall coordination. Despite the confusion, Nevada’s gunners had already claimed a couple of enemy planes shot down, including a torpedo bomber off the port quarter. Marine Private Peyton McDaniel paused to watch a torpedo bear down on the ship. Though he expected it to break the ship in two, Nevada only shuddered and listed somewhat to port.
Then a projectile crashed into Taussig’s gun director, passed through his thigh and smashed the ballistics computer. In shock, the ensign felt no pain. His leg was shattered, and his left foot was lodged up under his armpit. Taussig commented absently, “That’s a hell of a place for a foot to be.”
Ignoring his injury and refusing evacuation, Taussig tried to regain control of the gun mounts. While the guns could still fire in local control, Taussig knew that they would be much more effective in directed mode. Most of the connections between his director and the starboard guns were cut, but the wounded ensign continued to give visual spotting reports over his sound-powered phones.
Far above, Commander Fuchida guided his bombers down Battleship Row. Although anti-aircraft fire increased steadily, most of the shells burst well below his planes. The gunfire and lingering high clouds frustrated the attackers, and Fuchida’s bombardier reported that he could not see Nevada. Other planes reported similar difficulties, though some managed to drop their bombs. With resistance still largely ineffective, Fuchida did not want to rush the attacks, so he led his charges in a wide circle over Honolulu to make another run. This took only a few minutes, but on the second pass the northern end of Battleship Row was still obscured, this time by the blaze and thick, oily smoke from Arizona. Despairing of a clear shot at Nevada, Fuchida directed his pilot to try for another ship.
Lieutenant Ruff remembered saying to himself, “Uh oh, some fool pilot has gone wild,” as he heard the first explosion from Solace. A short time later, he heard a roar and rushed to the starboard porthole in time to see Arizona erupt in a ball of flame. Leaving Father Drinnan behind, he commandeered one of Solace’s launches, directing the coxswain back to Nevada. The small boat labored across the smoky harbor, strafed but unhit. Shouting above the din, Ruff guided the coxswain under Nevada’s stern for protection from low-flying attackers. Moments later, he scrambled up the accommodation ladder to the quarterdeck.
Ruff found himself in the midst of a full-blown shooting war. Minutes after Arizona had been torpedoed, a speeding Kate launched one into Nevada, tearing a 45-by-30-foot gash in her bow. The gunners labored to maintain a high volume of fire, but the Japanese aircraft seemed to attack with impunity. Fuses set for too low an altitude caused 5-inch shells to explode below many of the attackers. Lack of coordination reduced overall effectiveness. Ruff saw only a glimpse of this as he headed below to his general quarters station in radio central. On the way he passed Ensign “Pops” Jenkins at his damage control station near the galley, but they exchanged little more than a glance. Ruff trotted down the passageway, ducking through watertight doors. He reasoned that with Captain Francis Scanland and the executive officer ashore, Lt. Cmdr. Francis Thomas, the command duty officer, would need all the help he could get. Though unsure of Thomas’ location, Ruff realized that radio central would not play much of a role under the current circumstances. He changed direction and headed up to the navigation bridge. There, higher and more exposed, Ruff could feel the intense heat and smoke from Arizona.
Upon reaching the bridge, Ruff found Quartermaster Chief Robert Sedberry on station. When the attack began, Chief Sedberry, on his own initiative, had ordered engineering to prepare to get underway. Since Nevada always kept one boiler steaming, she could sortie when most of the other large ships were resting at “cold iron” and could not. Ruff joined Sedberry in preparing the bridge, laying out charts and identifying navigable landmarks for a run to sea. Admiral Furlong had already signaled the fleet to sortie as soon as possible. None of the larger ships had yet attempted to do so.
Establishing communications with Commander Thomas in Nevada’s internal control station, deep in the bowels of the ship, Ruff detailed the conditions topside. He filled Thomas in on the sortie signal and his readiness on the bridge. Thomas had his hands full below, counterflooding to correct Nevada’s port list, dispatching firefighting teams around the ship and supervising engineering’s preparations to get underway. Ruff suggested that Thomas handle things belowdecks while he handled topside. Battling damage and a shortage of manpower, Thomas readily agreed.
Time was running out for a sortie. A sheet of flames from Arizona rode a slick of fuel oil toward Nevada’s bow. Despite the spirited defense organized by Taussig, assisted by Ensign T.H. Taylor in the port director, two or three bombs struck Nevada around 8:25. Inside the bridge, Lieutenant Ruff heard a faint voice calling, “Let me in, let me in.”
Ruff opened the hatch leading to the bridge wing but found no one. Returning puzzled, he heard the voice again. After casting about for the location of the voice, Ruff and Sedberry traced it to the deck. They lifted the deck gratings and opened the access hatch–and found Thomas, who had climbed the 80-foot access trunk from his control station. Mounting damage had convinced him that Nevada must attempt the sortie soon or be pounded under the water. Thomas had stabilized the ship’s damage to the best extent possible, so it was now or never. Ruff and Sedberry quickly briefed him, and within 15 minutes Nevada pulled away from Fox 8.
By sheer luck, Thomas timed his departure perfectly. Between 8:25 and 8:40 there was a lull between the first and second strikes. With steam to the engines and the steering tested, Thomas directed that Nevada get underway. Chief Boatswain Edwin Hill, led a few sailors to the moorings ashore to cast off the lines. Although hindered by Arizona’s spreading fire, strafing planes and spent anti-aircraft shells falling around them, Chief Hill and his party quickly freed Nevada. They then dove into the treacherous waters and swam back to the ship.
Thomas, Ruff and Sedberry now began the difficult maneuvers involved in getting the 29,000-ton battleship out of Pearl Harbor unassisted. As Ruff remembered, it usually took two hours to build steam in all boilers, and required several tugs, a civilian harbor pilot, the navigator and the captain to get underway. The three of them would attempt the channel passage alone, under attack, their ship damaged by both flooding and fires. Ruff found the prospect daunting. With Thomas conning, Ruff navigating and Sedberry manning the helm, Nevada eased back from her berth. Ruff aligned his landmarks on Ford Island and fed Thomas positions and recommended courses to steer.
As Nevada headed fair into the South Channel, Ruff gazed in shock at the destruction of Battleship Row. Arizona blazed fiercely, forcing Nevada’s sailors manning the starboard anti-aircraft batteries to shield the shells from the heat with their bodies. The deck crew still managed to throw a line to three sailors in the water. Wet and oily, they promptly joined the crew of the nearest 5-inch battery. Several of Ruff’s U.S. Naval Academy classmates had been serving on Arizona, and he could only wonder if any had survived her destruction.
West Virginia came into sight next. She had taken several torpedoe hits, and she was settling into the mud on an even keel, thanks to rapid counterflooding. Oklahoma had turned turtle, trapping many sailors inside. Tennessee and Maryland were moored inboard and had escaped torpedo damage. Still, smoke rose from both of them. Finally, Nevada steamed past California, the flagship of the battle force. Flames surrounded her and she, too, was settling on an even keel.
Nevada cleared the end of Battleship Row just before 9 a.m. Ahead lay the dredge Turbine and its pipeline attached to Ford Island. Maneuvering through the narrow space between the dredge and 1010 Dock would be challenging on a normal day. Now time was running out; the second wave of Japanese planes began to arrive in force. Attacks on Nevada intensified, and Chief Sedberry did “some real twisting and turning” to make Nevada a difficult target and avoid the dredge.
Planes destined for Pennsylvania dove on Nevada instead. If they could sink her, they could bottle up the South Channel or, better yet, the main channel off Hospital Point, for months. Nevada’s gun crews threw up the stiffest barrage they could, but Aichi D3A1 dive bombers scored numerous hits and near-misses.
Casualties mounted in the gun crews. Flying splinters raked the decks, and fires set off ready ammunition. Boatswain’s Mate A. Solar, who had taken charge of his mount until its officers arrived, fell to shrapnel. Seaman 1st Class W. F. Neundorf, gun captain of No. 6 gun, also died at his post. Most of the bombs struck forward, making a shambles of the forecastle. Ruff, Thomas and Sedberry hung on. “Their bombs jolted all Hell out of the ship,” Ruff remembered. “My legs were literally black and blue from being knocked around by the explosions.”
Still, the officers on the bridge hoped that they might make it to open water. Then, a signal from Vice Adm. W.S. Pye, the battle force commander, ordered Nevada not to exit the harbor because of reported enemy submarines. Committed to their present course and continuing to absorb heavy punishment, Thomas and Ruff decided to nose her into the mud off Hospital Point so that she would not be sunk in the channel. Hits to the forecastle had wrecked the anchor windlass and killed many in the deck crew, including Chief Hill, who was blown over the side. Once aground, securing the ship there might prove impossible.
Fortunately, Ruff could still talk to the boatswain’s mate standing by the stern anchor on the fantail. Fires raged around the conning tower, threatening to cut him off, so Ruff relayed the plan as quickly as possible. Heedless of the danger on the open fantail, the young sailor promised to wait for Ruff to wave his hat, the signal to let go the anchor. Passing out of the channel between buoy No. 24 and floating dry dock YFD-2, Ruff backed the engines full, then hastened to the bridge wing, waving his hat out over the side. With a clatter and a cloud of rust, the stern anchor plunged into the water and took hold. At 9:10, Nevada came to rest at Hospital Point.
Thomas then turned his full attention to damage control, while Ruff headed aft to assess conditions topside. Five minutes later, he met Captain Scanland boarding at the quarterdeck. The captain had left his home in Honolulu as the first bombs fell, fighting his way through the chaos in the streets to commandeer a launch and chase down his command.
With the second-wave attacks nearly spent, firefighting and flood control became paramount. Tugboats sent by Admiral Furlong arrived alongside, bringing their hoses into action against the fires that raged from stem to almost amidships. For a time, only the tugs could fight the fires because most of Nevada’s fire mains had been ruptured. Thomas directed his damage-control parties to splice or patch the critical ones forward.
After directing Ruff to report Nevada’s status to Admiral Kimmel, Scanland headed forward to find Thomas, and Ruff boarded the launch that had brought Scanland. As the coxswain picked his way through smoking debris, Ruff saw Arizona, still blazing as fiercely as when they had passed her half an hour before. California also burned steadily. Shaw, the destroyer perched in YFD-2, added to the pall. Her forward magazine had exploded shortly after Nevada had grounded. Finally, great columns of smoke billowed skyward from the major airfields surrounding Pearl. Even from lowly sea level, the destruction appeared complete.
Back on Nevada, as the attacks ceased, the gun crews joined in the battle to save the ship. Sweating, smoke-grimed sailors gradually gained the upper hand over the fires. Individually, officers and sailors secured their immediate areas. Ensign Taylor climbed down from his gun director to lead the firefighting on the port gun deck. Hindered by shattered eardrums, Taylor directed hose teams to spray red-hot ready ammunition boxes before they exploded.
Escape proved considerably more difficult for Taussig. His men finally convinced him to relinquish his post, where he had fought on despite his serious wounds. Now fires licked up and around the upper works, blocking the ladders to the starboard director. Eager sailors rigged a line to lower Taussig’s stretcher directly to the deck. The young ensign remained conscious and coherent as pharmacist’s mates worked to stabilize his injuries.
With no bow anchors to hold her fast, Nevada might still slide back and block the South Channel. At 10:35, with the damage situation under control, Scanland prepared to move Nevada to a safer haven well clear of the shipping channels. Two tugs pushed her stern around until her bow slid free, then accompanied her across the channel to Waipio Point, where she grounded herself stern first at 10:45. Nevada rested there until February 1942, when she was floated for repairs. She later returned to service.
Meanwhile, Ruff had arrived at CINCPAC headquarters to find a somber staff sorting out the details of the attack and grasping for some means of retaliation. Admiral Kimmel questioned Ruff personally, his calm demeanor barely masking the anguish he obviously felt. Ruff had hardly returned to Nevada when Scanland sent him back to report the grim initial damage assessment. At least one torpedo and five bombs had hit Nevada, mostly forward. Numerous near-misses had added to the hull damage. Engineering was flooded, salting the boilers and much of the steam piping. Though she had sortied, Nevada was now neither battle-worthy nor seaworthy. Some stubborn fires burned on and would not be completely extinguished until 6:30 p.m.
Ruff made several more trips between headquarters and Nevada. He acted as Captain Scanland’s pointman ashore, organizing necessary services for the ship and crew. Most important, the crew needed shelter and sustenance. The wounded received top priority, evacuating to Solace or the base hospital. Ensign Taussig was on one of the first boats. He would lose his left leg and spend the remainder of the war in the hospital.
With the ship in such bad shape, Ruff arranged shore billeting for the crew in the base’s open-air theater. Captain Scanland left a skeleton crew aboard to serve as a reflash watch and to perform critical repairs to keep the ship defensible. Thomas remained aboard, directing much of that work. In fact, Scanland’s after-action report offered high praise of Thomas, a naval reservist, not only for his skillful handling of the ship during the attack but also for his dogged repair efforts. Two days after the attack, Thomas was on the verge of collapse from almost continuous work with no sleep.
As darkness fell, Lieutenant Ruff bedded down with the crew at the theater. Exhausted, he could only gaze into the night sky, pondering the few short hours that had shattered this tropical paradise. Friends had died, Nevada lay aground, and the war he and his wife had feared was upon them with stormlike fury. Reeking, oily smoke hung over Pearl, and the glow of fires was still visible all around. In the darkness, the desperate day finally ended. *
Author Mark J. Perry has conducted extensive research on the Pearl Harbor attack and its aftermath. For further reading, try: At Dawn We Slept, by Gordon W. Prange; and Day of Infamy, by Walter Lord.