Seventy five years have passed since that impulsive aerial attack by the Imperial Japanese Naval Forces. My battle station at the time of the attack was the searchlights, located atop the Nevada’s mainmast, towering over 85 feet above the main deck, another 44 feet to water’s edge. From this height, I had one of the best sites for an unobstructed view of the harbor in every direction.
And now, with some of the once repressed thoughts of that eerie attack, some recognitions have become clear and vivid, whereas others remain dim and faint.
I was one of the 450 skeleton crew who remained with the USS Nevada during her salvage, the remodeling months, and to participate in the later months as one of the great gunfire support ships to protect the U.S. landings on enemy-held beaches during World War II. I am proud to have served aboard the USS Nevada from its baptism of fire at Pearl Harbor through the perilous days of the Kamikaze attack at Okinawa.
All I could do, as a wave of enemy bombers appeared on the scene, was to just watch in amazement as bombs fell on Nevada’s forecastle and navigation bridge. Men were coming from below decks and manning the empty gun positions or replacing those that had fallen.
No one may be cognizant of the dedication and adherence of duty unless he senses the prodigious responsibility thrust upon those teenagers, untried in battle, in the absence of their respective officers.
During Nevada’s 98-minute sortie down the south channel, these young sailors kept the AA guns firing, downing two more planes, as bombs continued to fall upon Nevada’s decks.
The surprise Japanese aerial attack lasted 110 minutes, from 0755 hours until 0945 hours. A total of 2,335 U.S. servicemen were killed and 1,143 were wounded, some later to die from their wounds.
USS Nevada had 29 dead, 102 wounded and 17 missing in action.
The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Dec. 7, 1941, would be a date that will live in infamy. The United States declared war on Japan and entered World War II.
This 18-year-old youth, passing from an age of innocence to an age of complexity and experience, had been a stunned witness to America’s last moment of peace and its first moment of war, a moment indelibly etched in his emotional memoirs. The defeat at Pearl Harbor was basically attributed to the lack of effective anti-aircraft fire power. Our warships were built in the 1920 and 1930s. They had been designed for surface warfare engagement and not fully prepared for an air attack.
A ship is only as good as its crew and those teenagers, in the absence of their officers, served their ship with dedicated honor, commitment and intense pride. I cannot describe their performance any way else. It is this pride, the intense pride, that the crew members of the USS Nevada have in carrying out their respective duties that earned the Nevada’s name, “A Spirited Ship.”
I tried through the years to promote the legacy of the USS Nevada — yes, it was the oldest ship (1916) of the Pacific Fleet, but it established a gunfire support record not equaled in U.S. Naval history.
Not a teenager’s typical Sunday morning
Editor’s note: The following is a timeline of events on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, according to Charles Sehe. Time slots were obtained from the USS Nevada’s log and the Harbor Command Center.
0530 hours: Reveille.
0600-0700: Breakfast; Condition 3-gun watch.
0756: Nevada’s Marine Color Guard and the band musicians assembled on the main deck aft to await the 8 o’clock signal to hoist colors as the National Anthem was played. With sudden fury, the first wave of attacking Japanese planes without any warning swept over the U.S. military air fields — Bellows, Hickam, Wheeler and the Ford Island flying boat (PBYs) ramps. The warships moored at “battleship row” quickly came under attack by low-flying torpedo planes. Torpedo wakes were already seen streaking toward the battleships West Virginia and Oklahoma. The first “Kate” torpedo bomber raised low over the Nevada, shredding the ensign and the main deck aft was sprayed with cannon (20 mm) fire.
0758-0802: Nevada’s gun crews now were racing to their battle stations, but the Color Guard and the band musicians held fast, even under strafing, until the last note of the Anthem was played, then they scurried to their designated battle stations. My GQ station had been Searchlight No. 3 starboard side high on the mainmast, accessible by ladder. The searchlight platform was located just beneath an open steel enclosure we called the “birdbath.” Here, four Marines, manning 50-caliber machine guns, were already firing at an incoming torpedo plane. GQ sounded and condition Zed closed all watertight doors. Enemy low-flying planes came in from Southeast Loch. Nevada’s AA gun crews were appearing on the boat deck.
0802: Marine gunners splashed one torpedo plane. Just below them, a sailor shot another down.
0805: Low-level torpedo planes coming in from the southwest crossed overhead with another flight of the high level and dive bombers coming in from the northwest. I didn’t see any of our planes around that group. Marines in the birdbath shot one down, our AA batteries got two and a sailor with a Lewis 30-caliber machine gun was credited with one. One torpedo exploded on the portside hull between turrets one and two. The explosion caused a violent lurching upwards of our ship with vibrant shuddering before slamming back on the water. (No one could have missed feeling the effects of that shock wave). A second torpedo missed its mark and slammed into the muddied bank. The Nevada, hit by torpedo, began a slight list to port. (Gunfire did splash the plane seconds later).
0809: Violent explosions shattered the forecastle of the Arizona, leaving its foremast, navigation and signal bridges a twisted, smoldering hulk. A huge column of blast furnace red heat shot upwards several hundreds of feet. The shock waves generated by the explosions reached Nevada’s open decks and those of us on topside felt the heat generated by the blast. Throughout the day, an acrid black smoke spiraled up from the Arizona’s forward areas, as death and destruction continued in battleship row and small rescue crafts moved cautiously about patches of burning oil while hands pulled out fuel blackened burned survivors from the harbor waters. (The shock waves were strongly felt by the Marines in the birdbath).
0809-0810: Harbor authorities gave order for the battleships to get underway. In spite of her gaping torpedo wound, the Nevada was the only major warship to respond to the order. Other battleships lay still moored, stricken and burning. Chief Quartermaster Sedberry set detail for getting underway. Lines were thrown off.
0810: One of the first bombs hit near the starboard AA Director.
0830-0840: The Nevada slowly moved away from its mooring, Fox 8, and passed the twisted burning hulk of the Arizona and the overturned Oklahoma, which entombed many of its crew.
0840: The Nevada had to “reverse” its directions to avoid hitting the Arizona. “Okie” sailors climbed onto hull lines.
0830-0900: An uneasy lull for about 20 minutes followed that strafing and bombing attacks on our ship. An urgent call came throughout the ship: “All hands not engaged in air defense or handling of ammunition, leave your station and turn to fighting the uncontrollable blazes.” I don’t remember how I had descended from the searchlight platform, but my arms and legs had bruises and deep scratches when I reached main deck aft.
0830: A bomb struck the bridge-navigation platform. Fierce fires broke out throughout the forecastle deck.
0845: Nevada’s No. 3 and 4 boilers relighted, and the wounded ship cruised down the channel at almost 19 knots, exceeding the channel posted limit of 14 knots.
0900: High-level bombers appeared again and concentrated on the slow-moving Nevada, determined to sink her in the channel, thereby blocking the exits for ships. Gray mushroom puffs from Nevada’s AA bursting shells added to the pall of black smoke that hung over the harbor, but there was no acknowledgment of hitting a plane in this raid. Boat deck gun crews were still firing at the overhead planes as the bombs fell. One AA gun position now was completely destroyed. More fires erupted throughout the boat deck and the ship’s galley. Our fire fighting unit lost water pressure when the pump to our hoses was destroyed. Tugboats appeared off our starboard side and began pouring jet streams of water into the raging fires. Some extinguished fires would yet flare up as the hot metal would reignite the smoldering debris. Flooding above the grilled floor plates of No. 1 and 2 fire rooms revealed that the fire rooms were soon to be secured.
0905: The Nevada was ordered not to proceed out of the harbor. She had already passed by the West Virginia, Tennessee (inboard), California and was edging along the shores of the Navy Yard.
0907: The Nevada cruised down the channel with all engines stopped abreast of the U.S. Naval Hospital.
0908-0920: The Nevada ran aground, bow low, while the AA gun crews were still firing at planes overhead, determined to sink her. The boat deck, now fiercely damaged, had one gun out of action. The Nevada intentionally grounded between the floating dry dock and No. 4 buoy (at Waipio Point).
0925: Nevada’s fire and boiler rooms were beginning to flood with noxious fumes forming. The “black gang” secured all connections and proceeded to evacuate. Ammunition magazines now were flooded to prevent further damage to our ship. Soon, all electrical power was lost, plunging the ship into total darkness. The AA guns on the boat deck became silent. Our fire hoses went limp. Tugboats continued to assist us in fighting the deck fires.
0920: Nevada shifted its command center from burning bridge to Battle Two Station.
1000: As preparations were made to secure anchor, at least seven enemy planes swarmed overhead. We were bombed, strafed, again adding new fires to the already-stricken Nevada. Fire fighting equipment limited to low water pressure and use of blankets and mattresses.
1030: As we were passing by a dry dock, the destroyer Shaw exploded violently, showering the Nevada with a blanket of burning debris and twisted metal. By 1032 hours it was all over. The Nevada was deliberately rammed into the muddied bank ashore from Hospital Point. The air space over the harbor became unusually quiet, save the burning hulks of the sunken battleships. The Nevada was silent and darkened with all power lost as flooding continued.
1035: Air attacks have ceased. Enemy planes withdrew to the northwest.
1045: Two tugboats firmly grounded the Nevada on the western bank of the entrance channel, clearing the channel for exits of warships ready to sortie.
1045-1330: All available personnel from each of the deck divisions commenced searching in their compartments and gun casemates for wounded and dead shipmates. All of the casualties were identified (best as possible) and tagged for injuries, and later transferred by launches to military hospitals or the Navy hospital ship, the Solace. At least 14 sporadic fires raged throughout the open decks and spaces.
1330: Remainder of day: Foraging teams continued searching throughout twisted masses of metal fragments and shredded bulkheads spattered with blood to leave no space unturned, as body fragments were carefully extracted from smoldering debris. I found fragmented portions of arms, legs and knee joints — all unidentifiable because of their blackened burned conditions. At 1880 hours, a launch drew alongside the Nevada with food and water from the cruiser Helena.
0700-0800 Monday morning, Dec. 8: Yard personnel accompanied by Naval officers boarded the Nevada to assess its extensive damage and its salvage possibility. Meanwhile, many of Nevada’s more experienced officers and enlisted men had volunteered or were transferred to other ships to raise those ships complement to combat readiness. I, being a Seaman Second Class, was among the 340 crew who remained on the Nevada till war’s end.
Charles Sehe, a Minnesota resident, is a Pearl Harbor attack survivor. Sehe was aboard the USS Nevada during the attack.