“Another Sunday, Another Pearl Harbor Attack”
On May 20, 1944, Robert Graf’s landing ship, tank (LST) 43 arrived in Pearl Harbor. Although the LST was capable of twelve knots on the open water, the captain had powered down the big General Motors diesel engines. As it made its way past Battleship Row, young Robert Graf and his fellow Marines assembled at the ship’s rails. For many, it was the first time they would see the destruction caused by the December 7, 1941, Japanese military strike. Graf looked out and saw a battleship lying on her side like an injured fish gasping for air. Beside him, a sailor spoke: “The Arizona—sunk.” The sailor paused long enough for the men to absorb the reality of the disaster: the hulking, 600-foot ship and nearly 1,200 men aboard, lost. Then he continued: “The California—sunk; the Maryland—damaged; the Nevada—beached; the Oklahoma—sunk; the Pennsylvania—damaged; the Tennessee—damaged; the Utah—sunk; the West Virginia—sunk.” Graf felt his stomach knot up. Two and a half years had passed since he’d first heard the words he had vowed not to forget: “The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor.” He clenched his fists as tears welled in his eyes. Then, lowering his head, he mumbled a prayer.
The convoy then separated and the various vessels went to anchorages throughout the harbor’s West Loch channel. One and a half miles from shore, LST 43 tied off to two other LSTs anchored in the middle of a group of eight. The Navy called this gathering of ships a “tare.” A sailor dropped the hook to prevent drifting. Graf looked around West Loch, the staging area for the first two waves of the upcoming invasion of Saipan. It was full of 330-foot LSTs, all grouped in tares, and all packed with Marines, many of whom would be going into battle for their first time.
Originally designed to deliver troops during island assaults, LSTs had been replaced by 1944. Encouraged by huge shipbuilding budgets, American engineers experimented with designs ideally suited to the island campaign of the Central Pacific and developed smaller, more versatile amphibious vehicles. Amtracs capable of transporting a platoon of men through the surf and onto an invasion beach took the place of the durable LSTs, which, with their 2,100-ton capacity, were increasingly used to transport troops, wounded soldiers, and cargo across the Pacific Ocean.
Although the Honolulu hotspots beckoned, the men from the 4th Marine Division had orders to stay aboard their LSTs. No liberty passes would be issued until the following day. Graf and his best buddy, Dick Crerar, stripped down to their skivvies and claimed two of the three dozen folding cots placed under an amtrac landing vehicle that had been fastened to the deck of the LST. Mounted over the length of the amtrac was a 130-foot canvas cover. Graf and Crerar enjoyed the breeze that drifted through the harbor, but avoided the blazing sun.
Comfortable as he was, Graf was concerned about the drums of high-octane gasoline lashed to the deck of the landing ship. Someone—maybe Crerar—said what everyone else was thinking: “This is one heck of a way to run a war. Suppose we get strafed or a shell from the shore hits us? We’d be on our way to hell in no time.”
The next day, May 21, broke blissfully, but neither Robert Graf nor any of the other men had time to enjoy it. The vessels had to be provisioned for the upcoming invasion. Because of a shortage of ammunition ships, a number of the LSTs would be used as float- ing ammo dumps—“suicide ships,” the Marines called them. They would carry rifle ammunition, rockets, drums of diesel fuel, torpedoes, and TNT.
On two nearby landing ships, civilian Navy Yard workers were doing some last-minute welding. Graf could hear the spitting of the gas flame. Two vessels down, one hundred black laborers from the U.S. Army’s 29th Chemical Decontamination Company were unloading mortars from LST 353. The 29th had arrived at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, in the summer of 1942.
Theoretically, a chemical decontamination company’s mission was to decontaminate men and equipment after an enemy chemical attack, but its soldiers also offered a ready source of manual labor. Because of a shortage of 4.2-inch mortars, the batteries had been dropped from the upcoming invasion plans. The workers had backed a succession of heavy trucks onto LST 353, and raised them on an elevator to the main deck. Although handling ordnance was sensitive work, since early morning the untrained members of the 29th had been removing mortars and passing boxes of ammunition from one man to the next. At the end of the chain, a man would slide a box or a mortar down a chute to men below, who loaded them onto truck beds.
Aboard LST 43, after noon chow, some guys were playing cards, using a stack of ammunition as their table. Graf and Crerar, too, had retired to the deck. Although there would be no liberty, at least they had the afternoon off. Standing at the rail, Graf could see boats filled with Marines bound for shore, where they would rush off to Waikiki for one last night of carousing before sailing for Saipan. If Graf or Crerar envied them, neither showed it. They would spend their day napping, reading, and writing letters before the mail went ashore for the last time.
Although Carl Matthews and Wendell Nightingale had liberty passes, Nightingale did not drink. So instead of accompanying a group of friends who would be drowning in booze at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Matthews joined Nightingale at a ball game. As a staging area for the war in the Pacific, Honolulu hosted two baseball leagues, the all-service Pearl Harbor League and the Hawaii League. Both leagues played their games at the 25,000-seat Honolulu Stadium. Servicemen knew they could see great baseball here. Catching a game with minor leaguers was guaranteed; seeing a major-league player was also a good bet. For the heads of the armed services, the games were about bragging rights, and by 1944 they were transferring the best talent in the armed forces to Hawaii.
Just three weeks before going into battle, Matthews was watching the best baseball of his life. Nobody back home would have believed it. Nor could he tell them. If he even mentioned Pearl Harbor in a letter, the censors would cut it up like a kid snipping a paper snowflake.
At 3:08, Matthews, Nightingale, and everyone else at the ballpark heard an explosion. It sounded as if one of Oahu’s volcanoes had blown. The baseball game stopped in mid-inning and the crowd rushed out of its seats.
Private Raymond Smith of the 29th Chemical Company saw balls of fire shoot from the deck of LST 353 as if propelled by a giant anti- aircraft gun, and boil through the sky. Realizing that soon the mortars and the drums of gasoline outside the elevator would blow, he ran to the rear of the ship and dove into the water. Tech 5 James Caldwell of the 29th crouched to pick up a box of mortars when he saw a “bright yellow flame” and heard “a deafening noise” coming from the elevator. Nearby, Private James Cleveland was carrying a box when he was hurled through the air. When he hit the deck of the vessel, his head spun and fire encircled him. I’m a dead man, he thought. He got to his knees, wobbled, and balanced himself. Then he dashed through the flames, struggling through thick black smoke to reach the back of the LST. Like Smith he jumped into the harbor just before the fuel drums and ammunition aboard the landing ship detonated with a thunderous roar, sending flames, body parts, and red-hot fragments flying in every direction. Almost everyone from the 29th who had been lucky enough to survive the first blast perished in the second.
Robert Graf and Dick Crerar were dozing when they felt an explosion rock their LST. The blast was so intense that the air itself felt as if it was on fire. The canvas tarp was burning and pieces of it were falling down on the deck. One terrified Marine, wakened from his afternoon slumber, yelled, “A bombing. Jap planes are hitting us. . . . Corpsman, Corpsman!” For a moment, everything stood still. Another Sunday, Graf thought. Another Pearl Harbor attack. Then he realized that if he and Crerar did not move fast, they would be burned alive in their cots. They ran thirty feet to the starboard rail as sizzling shards of shrapnel ripped across the LST, and were planning to jump when they saw that even the water was on fire.
At 3:11 there was a blinding flash, and another explosion rocked the harbor. Everything on LST 43 was burning now—cots, blankets, seabags, even the halyards and the paint on the bulkhead. Then it hit Graf: The oil drums! Seconds later, they erupted. The blast threw men high into the air. They landed on the deck in the middle of the swirling flames. Graf and Crerar had already jumped onto an adjoining ship, but the LSTs were berthed so close together that the fire moved from one vessel to the next, igniting the ammunition caches as it spread. Graf could hear the detonations:.30-caliber ammunition from Marine ammo belts, boxes of 20-mm rounds piled haphazardly on the decks, and heavier blasts from what might have been howitzer shells stored in the cargo holds. At the far rail of the neighboring LST, he and Crerar stopped long enough to see that Navy corpsmen were already tending to the injured men.
At 3:17, Captain Craven, Navy duty officer, got a radio message from an unknown ship in the harbor: “Violent explosion in LST next to us. Send all available help.” The Navy Air Signal reported that it was already too late. The vessel blew up just seconds after sending the message. At 3:19, another LST radioed, “Two on fire here. The whole nest will soon be.” Graf and Crerar were caught in the conflagration. Every nearby LST was now engulfed in flames. LST 353 had sunk, and a number of the others were dragging their anchor chains, drifting in the direction of a collection of seven more LSTs in Tare No. 9. In Tare No. 9, men were trying to cut the hawsers that tied the vessels to the dock, knowing that it might be their only chance of escape.
At 3:20, as ammunition burst en masse, a flame shot a thousand feet into the sky. Graf and Crerar ran, jumping from one landing ship to the next. Wading through the choking smoke, they reached the last one in the nest. Graf felt as if a siren were ringing in his ears. His feet were bleeding, cut by shards of glass and razor-sharp steel, and his shoulder felt as if someone had sucker-punched him. At the rail, a crowd of men was gathered, waiting for rescue boats. Others were tearing around, looking for life jackets. If they jumped, maybe the fire tugs would rescue them.
“Let’s swim for it!” Graf yelled to Crerar. “I can’t swim!” Crerar shouted back. Graf looked at him in disbelief. A Marine could not make it through boot camp without knowing how to swim.
I’ll carry him on my back, Graf thought. Then he did a rough calculation. They were at least a mile from shore. Shrapnel was falling like hail, and the harbor was on fire. One of us, or both of us, will die. Then Graf turned to his friend. “I’ll send a rescue boat back to get you.”
“It’s a hell of a long way,” an officer cautioned Graf. Seconds later Graf dove into the waters of West Loch.
By 3:34, Captain Craven realized that he had a disaster of major proportions on his hands. Tares No. 6 and No. 10 were on fire now, too, and aboard the LSTs, many of the water pumps were disabled. At 3:35 he notified the commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District and the commandant of the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard. Ten minutes later, Craven instructed all able LSTs in Tares No. 6 and 10 to proceed to sea. At 4:00 p.m., he ordered LSTs in Tare 5 to leave the harbor. Just minutes later, officers radioed to report that their vessels were not seaworthy. Aboard them, small crews were trying to put out fires, but flying debris was cutting their hose lines. At 4:17, Craven witnessed another “tremendous explosion,” and a large but lesser detonation seven minutes later. At 4:30, hoping to stem the spread of the fire, he ordered three PT boats to torpedo the drifting LSTs.
Graf had not been swimming for long when he found himself swallowing oily water and fighting to breathe. His shoulder throbbed, and in the salt water the cuts on the bottoms of his feet made him feel as if he had stepped on a hornet’s nest. The water ahead of him was on fire. He filled his lungs and dove as deep as he could. His lungs, however, failed him and he came up in the middle of the blaze, wheezing and thrashing his arms. Then he dove again. This time when he rose, the fire was behind him. He looked in the direction of shore; it seemed so far away. Then he rolled onto his back and gulped at the air.
Graf looked for other swimmers. He knew they were out there—perhaps hundreds of them—because he had seen them jumping from the rails of the LSTs. But he could not spot a single person. Perhaps they had all drowned. An overwhelming sense of loneliness came over him, as if he were the last man left on a doomed earth. He rolled onto his back again to regain his strength, but saw nothing except smoke and fire. It was as if the whole of West Loch were burning.
When his feet touched bottom, he was too tired to feel relief or elation. He staggered to shore, wearing nothing more than his underwear, a belt, and his throwing knife tucked into a sheath, and collapsed. Then he realized that someone was pulling at his feet and yelling at him. Standing, Graf looked around and saw that the ground was covered with burned and exhausted men. He stumbled down a dirt road flanked by a large cane field. Glancing back at the harbor, he saw a search boat trailing a lifeline, and managed to summon the strength to call out. Motioning for the boat to come closer, he yelled to the officer that there were still men stranded on the LSTs.
“I’ll get them,” the officer shouted, pointing the bow of his craft into the wall of smoke.
Graf did not go far before trucks, ambulances, and jeeps arrived. Someone helped him aboard a vehicle, and minutes later he was in line at a field station waiting to see a Navy doctor. The scuttlebutt was that a Jap sub had slipped through the nets that guarded the entrance to Pearl Harbor and had torpedoed an LST, setting off a chain reaction. Some disagreed, saying that it was welders or ammunition loaders who set off the first blast. One man claimed he had seen oil-stained water catch fire as dozens of men swam for shore. He doubted that any of them had survived. Those who had stayed aboard ship and fled to the rope lockers to escape the fire suffocated to death. Another told a story about swimmers getting caught in an LST’s propeller. Still others saw rescue workers pulling headless and shrapnel-shredded bodies from the water. All Graf could think about was Dick Crerar.
After the doctor checked his ears and took care of his cuts and burns, Graf was issued new dungarees, shoes, a blanket, and a cot. That night, surrounded by other injured survivors, he tried to sleep, but was plagued by nightmares.
On Monday morning, May 22, Captain Craven was getting a more complete picture of the disaster. Six LSTs and three amtracs had been lost. Coast Guard boats were still fighting isolated fires. Worse yet was the human toll. Aiea Heights Naval Hospital was full of wounded troops, hundreds of them, and corpses in coolers, waiting to be identified.
That morning the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported on the incident: “There was a small explosion, yesterday, at Pearl Harbor.” Perhaps someone from Admiral Chester Nimitz’s headquarters had advised the paper to downplay the incident in order not to tip off the Japanese to the upcoming invasion. Also, it would be bad publicity for the Navy—nearly four hundred men wounded and almost two hundred killed, over one third of them from the Army’s all-black Twenty-ninth Chemical Decontamination Company. If the African American press got hold of the information, there would be a great hue and cry in the civil rights community.
By the afternoon, a naval board of inquiry was questioning its first witness, the executive officer of LST 353, which was berthed in Tare No. 8. Hours later it interviewed Lieutenant Commander Joseph Hoyt, who was in charge of a flotilla of LSTs. Hoyt testified that the kind of load they were putting on the decks of the LSTs violated every safety precaution of the Navy, adding, however, that, “When you have to do it, you do it.”