“A Day of Infamy”; December 7, 1941
The story of how a quiet Sunday morning in Hawaii turned into “A Day of Infamy” has been told and retold for 73 years. It is one of the most important days in American history and is a day that should never be forgotten.
Two of the ships that were attacked in Pearl Harbor that day still lay where they were berthed during the attack. The USS Utah was an old battleship that had its decks overlaid with 6X12 timbers so that she could withstand practice bombs being dropped on her decks, she was a “target ship.” The Utah was the oldest of the nine battleships at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese did not realize that she was only a target ship; they attacked her because they thought she was an active battleship.
On the other side of Ford Island from the berth of the Utah was Battleship row. Seven of the Navy’s battleships were docked here, lined up in a neat row. In one berth, the USS Arizona was on the inside, with the USS Vestal, a service vessel, tied on her outboard side. The Arizona and the Vestal were moored behind the battleship Nevada, ahead of the battleships Tennessee and the West Virginia.
East of the Arizona, among other heavy cruisers, near the submarine docks, was the USS Honolulu.
Crews on the three ships had eaten breakfast, were eating breakfast, or were getting ready to eat breakfast. The Sunday morning routines on the ships of the U S Navy Pacific Fleet were beginning. Until about 8:00 a.m. it appeared a normal, quiet Sunday morning.
Bill Stephenson, a native of Jasper, Texas had enlisted in the Navy in early 1941, “to see the world, and get out of East Texas.” Stephenson had been assigned to the heavy cruiser Honolulu. He was was below decks at his station in the powder room that Sunday morning. Stephenson’s job was to assist in the loading of the big deck guns on one of the Honolulu’s three turrets. He would perforate the powder canisters and then load them on the elevator that carried them up to the gun in the turret. A plunger would then push the projectile and the powder canisters into the breech of the gun. The breech plug would be swung into place and locked in position. The gun was then ready to be fired by the gun crew.
Stephenson was on the third deck, two decks below the main deck.
“We heard some planes and some guns going off and some explosions, but they sounded way off. We thought it was just some practice by our planes and guns. I had no idea what was happening until this big explosion happened and shook the hell out of the whole ship. Our lights started to go on and off and all of a sudden, people started hollering to get to the main deck, get out of the ship,” said Stephenson. The Honolulu had been bombed, but the bomb was a near miss. It went between the ship and the dock. The men inside the ship had heard the explosion and felt the concussion from the near miss.
“We got on the main deck and an officer told me and another guy to get on one of the 20mm guns. I had seen them, but never been shown how to fire one. He told the other guy to turn a couple of wheels to move the gun around and told me to turn one to make the gun move up and down, and showed me the lever to pull to make the gun fire. We shot a lot, but never hit anything,” said Stephenson. “Everywhere we looked there were airplanes. We did see one get shot down, but I have no idea who shot it down.”
Damage to the Honolulu was minor, mostly to the electrical systems. The damage was caused by the concussion of the near miss. The concussion was strong enough to knock one of the turrets out of alignment.
There was a huge explosion and a ball of fire that Stephenson found out later happened when the Arizona blew up. The explosion was caused when an armor piercing bomb penetrated the Arizona and exploded in the main powder magazine. Nearly one million pounds of powder exploded.
Among the more than one thousand killed on the Arizona that morning was Eston Arledge. Arledge was from Vinton, La and had been raised in the Nibblet’s Bluff community. He was a signalman, possibly on duty that morning in the signal bridge high above the main deck; his body was never found.
“After the Arizona blew up and the other ships around us were hit there was burning oil all over the water. There were men that would try to swim through it. If they were lucky they could hold their breath and swim underwater. A lot would try but couldn’t do it and they would come up in a pool of oil and fire. It was really bad,” said Stephenson. “After a long while we were able to take a break and get some coffee to drink. It tasted really good. As bad as we had it, a lot of people had it a lot worse. I had a friend on the Vestal, his name was Matthews, he had to go around and pick up bodies.”
It was nightfall before Stephenson finally got to go to his bunk to try to rest. Naturally, he was a dirty as he was tired. He still has a blanket from that day with oil on it.
He had the opportunity to retrain as a radio operator and was assigned to the USS Copahee. The Copahee was an escort carrier, sometimes called a “Jeep Carrier”. They were a class of aircraft carriers smaller than the fleet carriers. The main job of the escort carriers was to escort convoys of merchant ships and troop transports. The Copahee spent most of her war years ferrying fighter planes from the United States to the airbases in the Pacific Theater. Stephenson spent the duration of the war on the Copahee.
“The saddest thing I remember about that day was that everyone of the Arizona’s band was killed. They had been having the “Battle of the Bands” the night before, and the Arizona’s band was one of the best. That morning they were setting up to play the National Anthem for the morning flag raising. When the attack started, they all went to their battle station and the big bomb killed them all,” said Stephenson. There were 21 members of the Arizona’s band.
The big ships all had a ship’s band; there was an annual competition at Pearl Harbor. The band award was later renamed “The USS Arizona Band Trophy”.
Three torpedoes dropped from the attacking planes hit the Utah on her port side. The hits caused the big ship to roll over and sink in 14 minutes. Fifty four men remain trapped inside her. She remains where she was at the time of the attack. There is a small memorial at her site.
In 1964 a memorial was built across the deck of the Arizona. Some of the ship’s structures that remained above the waterline were removed and reused in the war effort. In a remote area of Pearl Harbor is some of the steel from the ship. Her lost crew is memorialized on the large marble wall inside the memorial. Thousands visit the memorial annually. Contrary to some rumors; the Arizona is not a commissioned ship, but passing ships do give her the respect she is due as a sister ship.
“I’m asked if I have problems from that day…..yes I do! When you go through what we went through that day, you can never forget! I remember the smell of the burning oil, and I remember seeing men get killed and I remember seeing bodies floating on the water and all the smoke and fire,” said Stephenson. “I have nightmares once in a while. I guess I never will be able to forget all that happened and what I saw that day.”
After his wartime service Stephenson settled in Beaumont, Texas for a few years and worked for McCarthy Chemical Company in their Winnie, Texas office. When a better opportunity arose, he changed jobs and became an Electrical-Instrument Technician for Firestone in Orange, Texas.
It was in a 2012 interview that he talked about his experiences in World War II, especially those related to December 7, 1941. It was the first time that his son had heard of his dad’s experiences on that day.
December 7, has become known as Pearl Harbor Day. It is a day set aside to remember the sacrifices of the attack. They were the sacrifices of a generation of men and women that became known as our “Greatest Generation.”
Photo: Bill Stephenson, a native of Jasper, Texas had enlisted in the Navy in early 1941, “to see the world, and get out of East Texas.” Stephenson had been assigned to the heavy cruiser Honolulu.