Melvin “Mutt” Helmick’s first assignment following boot camp in the fall of 1940 was the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor. He didn’t find it a favorable experience, however. “The crew was cool to young sailors,” he recalled, “and no one looked out for you. My only duty was fire watch, and I was always relieved too late for chow.” Much to his relief, it wasn’t long before he was transferred to USS California, another dreadnought moored along Pearl’s Battleship Row.
Assigned to one of the newer ship’s engine control rooms, Helmick was in his quarters preparing for duty on the morning of December 7 when his world was turned upside down. “I was standing next to my locker shortly past 7:30 a.m. when a buddy asked me if I had change for a $20 bill. I had just handed him his money when the alarm for General Quarters sounded and everyone began running to their duty stations.”
Despite the chaos around him, Helmick’s training immediately kicked in and he dutifully rushed to his battle station deep in the middle of the ship, underneath the machine shop. “When I arrived at my post, there were sailors and an officer already present,” he remembered. “It was 7:55 a.m. [when] I picked up my pencil and paper. My job was communicating orders from our control room to the main engine room, and I used two different phones….One phone was a sound power phone, while the other was battery operated. I had to listen to both phones simultaneously.”
Drills were common for the crew, but this time the alarm had rung early on a Sunday morning, typically a day of rest. “You could detect a nervousness in the air,” Helmick recalled. The men, of course, had reason to be anxious. Deep within California, they could not see what was happening topside, but the extensive noise only increased the tension below. It soon got worse when one large bomb and two torpedoes struck the ship, with the second torpedo causing California to shudder and begin to list.
Helmick tried to stay calm. Soon “a door opened and a sailor threw in a bundle of gas masks hollering that the Japanese were dropping gas,” he said. “I put on my gas mask and adjusted it to my face, and continued listening to both phones for any messages. Even though it was now getting scary, we still remained at our stations.”
Around 9:30 a.m., about 90 minutes after the Japanese attack had begun, California’s captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. The list had grown worse, and many feared the ship would roll and trap them inside. Free to make their escape, Helmick and the others ran down the passageways to begin their ascent: “As we got closer to the main deck we were followed by fumes from the burning oil that overcame some of the sailors, killing them. Later we found a dead sailor below deck who looked like he died from fright. Fumes had overcome him. When I finally got on the main deck, I noticed fires coming from my living quarters. I then looked down Battleship Row and there was nothing but huge burning fires and dark, black smoke.”
As alarming as the scene was on Battleship Row, alongside California it was even worse. At one point, an officer told Helmick to jump overboard, but the young sailor, unenthused, said he wasn’t going to jump into water that was already blazing. Others had. “There were men swimming amongst dead sailors and flotsam,” he said. “Many of the floating dead were horribly burned, and everything in the water was coated in oil. Later we kidded the sailors for getting Purple Hearts for a ‘burned ass.’ Men would be swimming in the burning water, and their butts would catch fire because of the oil impregnating their pants.”
Rather than jump in, Helmick was assigned the equally unappealing duty of trying to remove rounds from the ammunition bunkers. “We formed long lines to empty the bunkers and [pass] ammo to gun positions,” he said. Soon, tugboats equipped with fire hoses came alongside and helped fight the blaze, and eventually an exhausted Helmick was taken to Ford Island to get some sleep. “The first night was real eerie, and every gunner around Pearl Harbor was trigger-happy. When an aircraft would fly over a building or hangar, men would come running out, fearing they would be killed or trapped inside in case a bomb would hit them. Late into the night, you could see boats bringing wounded men ashore from burning battleships. The fires illuminated the entire harbor for miles.”
Despite the crew’s determined efforts to control the ship’s gradual flooding, by December 10 California had settled into the mud at the bottom of the harbor. The ship was raised in March 1942, and after being repaired and refitted, returned to action. Nearly 100 of its officers and men had been killed during the Japanese attack.
Helmick was among those returning to the ship on December 8. A few days later, he finally had a chance to write his parents to let them know he was all right. “We were told not to mention anything related to the attack, about my ship, or the present situation about Pearl Harbor. All of the mail leaving Hawaii was heavily censored. My parents received my letter, but shortly afterward received a telegraph message from the Navy Department informing them I was lost in action.”
Helmick’s parents grieved for two weeks before the Navy corrected its “administrative error.”
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.