Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Capt. Bill Carpenter (Ret.) remembers the details of Dec. 7, 1941 very clearly. Four decks below the USS Oklahoma near the engine room, Carpenter manned large 14-inch guns as a gunner's mate and young Ensign, newly graduated from the United States Naval Academy.
Along Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor, the USS Tennessee, trapped in its berth by the sinking USS West Virginia and USS Arizona, had to keep its propellors rotating to push away the oil fires spreading out from the destroyed vessels. This Wednesday marks the 64th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941 sneak attack on Hawaii.At 7:55 a.m., Japanese aircraft began attacking the harbor. According to Carpenter, nine torpedoes were dropped on Oklahoma's port side, causing it to roll 135 degrees to the left. With the main deck submerged, the ship's severe rotation caused its mast to get stuck in the mud of the harbor, trapping hundreds in the belly of the ship. The gunner's spaces and engine room flooded. One would have to swim through the ship's dark passageways to find escape through a porthole. The water levels rose slowly in other parts of the ship where some of Carpenter's crewmates huddled in air pockets, rescued three days later after people heard them tapping on the hull. Thirty-two survived by cutting their way out. In a telephone interview from his home in Stafford, Va., where he now lives with his wife, Carpenter describes the day's events in expert detail like a man who lived through the "date which will live in infamy." He remembers the numbers, too: Four hundred five of his 1500-man crew dead. He says that he would never have survived that day, that he would have drowned in the gunner's spaces where he was assigned. If Carpenter hadn't broken the rules of the United States Navy, he would have been on the USS Oklahoma that morning and not in bed in a Honolulu bungalow with his new wife, the woman he said saved his life. It depends on how he tells it. Oklahoma's massive malfunctioning steam turbine and Carpenter's willingness for mischief could also be accredited as lifesavers. The story starts in Carpenter's hometown of Mooresville, Ind., also hometown to John Dillinger, a murdering bank robber, who ascended to hero status in the minds of Depression-era Americans. Carpenter says places such as the United States Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Academy offering a free education were the only options for many of his peers who would have no jobs after graduating high school and no means to pay for a college education. "We got there just the right time to get killed," Carpenter says, referring to the fact that his class--the class of 1940--was to lose the most Sailors in World War II. In fact, ten of his classmates were assigned with him in June 1940 to the USS Oklahoma. In mid-September of 1941, the inevitable happened. The two huge steel steam reciprocating engines--the engines that crewmembers were always saying would break something--crushed the Oklahoma's starboard shaft, and the crew headed to San Francisco for repairs. Back then, there was a strict rule that graduates of the Naval Academy had to wait two years after graduation to marry. Carpenter's girlfriend came from Indiana to meet him in San Francisco while he and his crewmember waited for the ship's new shaft. On the Saturday before the Oklahoma was to head back to Pearl Harbor, Carpenter and his fiancé snuck away to Reno, Nev., paid $2 for a marriage license and were married by Rev. Schmidt in the 15 minutes he had free between teaching Sunday school and holding service. Carpenter rented a place in Honolulu for $65 a month for his wife--at the time his ensign's salary was $125 a month--and was scheduled to report back to the Oklahoma at 10 a.m. December 7, 1941, just two hours after the first wave of Japanese aircraft entered Pearl Harbor."When the ship was sunk, I was in bed with my new bride," Carpenter recalls. After Pearl Harbor, in the spring of 1942, Carpenter was sent to Boston and immediately sent to the South Pacific where he spent the next three years around Tokyo Bay, and at the war's end transported all the surviving POWs, including Gregory "Pappy" Boynton, from Japan to America. "By attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese guaranteed they would lose the war," Carpenter said, recalling how Pearl Harbor changed everything. In high school, Carpenter remembers reading pamphlets arguing against America's involvement in the first World War. "Before that, two wide oceans on each side of the U.S. were enough [to protect us]." "The U.S. learned a lot in two minutes at Pearl Harbor, that you cannot go unprepared in today's world," he says. Carpenter says every once in a while he looks at his wife of sixty-four years and tells her that she is the reason he is alive. They laugh and make jokes about it, he says, but that's the truth. "That's my story of survival," Carpenter says. "That's the reason I am alive."