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The Sinking of the SS Cynthia Olson
© Bill McWilliams
On Sunday, 7 December 1941, at approximately 0830 ship’s time, 0730 hours Hawaii time, the pride of the Matson Line’s cruise ships, the SS Lurline, was en route from Honolulu on her normal, northeasterly course. She was sailing her routine, twice-a-month triangular route from Hawaii to San Francisco to Los Angeles and return, carrying an almost full load of more than 800 passengers.
The Lurline’s Chief Officer, Edward Collins, stopped by the radio shack to have a chat with the officer of the watch, "Tiny" Nelson. Nelson was listening intently to communications traffic. Only a minute or so elapsed when Nelson began writing out a message on the typewriter. As he was listening and typing he called Collins’ attention to read it.
SS Lurline on her maiden voyage - 1933
The message was an SOS, the international emergency signal, from the 2,140-ton steam schooner SS Cynthia Olson, a ship constructed by the Manitowoc Ship Building Company in Wisconsin, in 1919, and in 1941 operated in the lumber trade on the Pacific Coast. But on this day, en route from Tacoma, Washington since 1 December, she was under charter to the U.S. Army Transport Service, carrying lumber to Honolulu. This first message stated she was under attack by a surfaced submarine. The message was also picked up by a shore-based station on the Pacific Coast. "Tiny" transmitted a reply and the exchange with Lurline continued.
(San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park)
One of the cargo ship’s final messages to Lurline stated they were under torpedo attack, and Collins asked Nelson to confirm the word TORPEDO. The brief reply stated it WAS a torpedo. "Tiny" had heard an earlier Cynthia Olson transmission giving her position in latitude and longitude, and he estimated her position as approximately 300 miles, bearing five degrees true, almost due north of Lurline.
The day before sending the SOS, the Cynthia Olson, captained by Merchant Marine Master Berthel Carlsen, was 300 miles off San Francisco, under way at 10 knots, when unknown to her crew, the Japanese submarine I-26, submerged at periscope depth and searching for potential targets, spotted and began tracking her. Commander Minoru Yokota, captain of the I-26, had been ordered to accompany I-10 in reconnoitering the Aleutians, then after 5 December, to deploy to a point between San Francisco and Hawaii to report on American fleet units carrying reinforcements to Hawaii. Lastly, I-26 was to destroy enemy merchant shipping after hostilities began.
Imperial Japanese Submarine I-26 (Captured Japanese Photo)
SS Cynthia Olson (Fr. Edward J. Dowling, S.J. Marine
The mission’s duration sharply limited the big submarine’s available space, including her hangar, because she was crammed with food and other supplies. Because of her overstuffed hangar, cargo and supply space, she carried only ten, old sixth year torpedoes of the seventeen she was capable of carrying. The submarine continued following the Cynthia Olson southwest during daylight hours, while I-26’s navigator plotted the schooner’s projected course. Yokota planned to surface at night, swing wide around her flank, pass her, and position his submarine along her projected course, to intercept and attack her at the moment hostilities were to begin on Oahu.
Historical Collection, University of Detroit Mercy Library)
The morning of 7 December, the submarine, having once more submerged to periscope depth prior to sunrise, intercepted the ship at exactly the projected point along her track. After Yokota established her nationality, I-26 surfaced, and fired a warning shot. Cynthia Olson’s radio operator sent an immediate SOS, and the crew swung out her lifeboats. A shore station in California picked up the SOS at 0938 Pacific time, which was 0738 Hawaiian time, ten minutes before eleven Japanese fighters began devastating machine gun and cannon strafing attacks, which included incendiary rounds – on Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay. Carlsen and his crew must have been profoundly shocked when I-26 surfaced. The submarine was larger than their ship. Through binoculars the ship’s officers were seeing a Junsen Type B.1 scout submarine 356 feet long and 17 feet abeam, 2,584 tons, and sufficient height – 31 feet – to hangar a collapsible seaplane that could be launched from a forward mounted, compressed air catapult, although on this mission the seaplane was left behind. The sleek, fast submarine was more than 100 feet longer than the Cynthia Olson. The I-26 carried six forward torpedo tubes, an aft-mounted 140-mm (5.5-inch) deck gun, and two 25-mm antiaircraft machine guns.
The seaplane I-26 normally took on her sorties, weighed 3,500 pounds, carried a crew of two, a payload of 340 pounds, and a rear-mounted 7.7-mm machine gun. The relatively light wood and metal-framed, cloth-covered wings and tail aircraft, had a top speed of 150 miles per hour, but normally flew at speeds near 85 miles an hour. When readied for launch, the wingspan was 36 feet. The engine was a Hitachi Tempu 9-cylinder, 340 hp, and the floatplane could remain aloft a maximum of 5 hours with an operating radius of 200 miles.
From a range of approximately 1,000 meters, I-26 fired 18 rounds from her deck gun at the American ship, but the Cynthia Olson remained afloat. Twenty minutes after firing the first shot I-26 received another broadcast the submarine captain had been expecting. From the Japanese Carrier Striking Force’s airborne mission leader, came Commander Mitsuo Fuchida’s attack signal, "To-ra, To-ra, To-ra." Yokota ordered the submarine submerged and I-26 fired a torpedo at the damaged target. The torpedo passed astern of the intended victim because the crippled ship was still making headway. The failure to hit Cynthia Olson with the single torpedo, caused Yokota to reassess his tactics. Only nine torpedoes left, and considerable time and distance remained on the assigned station off the United States’ west coast. Yakota surfaced I-26 again to open fire with her deck gun – this time with 29 more shells. The Cynthia Olson began settling. Yokota, concerned about a possible American air attack, decided the ship was sinking and I-26 departed after being in the area a total of approximately two hours.
The Cythia Olson’s log of her final minutes, picked up by listening stations, preceded her radio operator’s last transmission to Lurline, and read:
0720 Watch relieved for breakfast. [dead reckoning navigation] 1200 miles West of Cape Flattery, WA. Last position 1450 (degrees) 35' (minutes) W Longitude, 330 20' N Latitude, Cr (course) 2780, speed by log 10.4 Knots, Wind from SE, force 3, with low Easterly swell, clear, 15 miles visibility, stratocumulus clouds.
0725 Sighted submarine periscope, swung out boats, Onboard 33 Seamen, 2 U.S. Army Soldiers, total SOB (souls on board) 35.
0738 Under attack from surfaced submarine, sending SOS, answered by Matson’s SS Lurline. All crew abandoning ship in lifeboats.
For the Cynthia Olson’s radio operator, time was running out after thirteen minutes. Undoubtedly, he was one of the last to leave the ship. The last message he sent to Lurline, confirming the torpedo attack, was sent before the surface attack that was fatal to his ship. The sequence of events also makes clear the captain of the Cynthia Olson, Berthel Carlsen, did not command "All engines stop" when the first warning shot was fired. Nor did I-26 hold its fire until the ship was abandoned. Emergency messages had continued while the submarine’s rounds repeatedly slammed into the stricken ship – until she could no longer stay afloat.
The Cynthia Olson’s Merchant Marine crew of 33 men, augmented by two regular Army privates, radio operator Samuel J. Zisking and medical technician Ernest J. Davenport, were never found. Records of Japanese submarine operations later disclosed I-26 picked up no survivors. Records did disclose that Commander Shogo Narahara, the captain of Japanese submarine I-19, on Monday, 8 December, surfaced his boat when it passed through the area where the Cynthia Olson went down – and gave food to survivors in lifeboats. How many, if any, survived the sinking, and got into their boats but simply never made it to safety or were never found, and perished? No one will ever know. The vast Pacific keeps its answers in the deep - forever.
She went down approximately 1,000 miles northeast of Hawaii, while the first wave of the Japanese strike force was savaging American military installations on Oahu and the Pacific Fleet’s ships in Pearl Harbor. She was the first American flagged merchantman sunk by the Japanese in World War II.
Less than 45 minutes after "Tiny" Nelson received the Cynthia Olson’s SOS at 0915 Hawaii time, Lurline’s skipper, Commodore Charles A. Berndtson, received word of another message, this one from Oahu. First transmitted from Ford Island at 0758 Hawaii time, 0858 on Lurline, the message was relayed around the world, and would become one of the most famous messages ever dispatched: "AIR RAID, PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NOT DRILL."
In those minutes listening to and answering desperate calls for assistance from a ship too distant to save, and hearing the stunning broadcast from Oahu, Lurline sailed from peace into war. Nothing would be the same the remainder of this voyage to San Francisco - or ever - for her, her passengers and crew. What’s more, Commodore Berndtson and his officers now knew there was at least one enemy submarine, possibly more, lying in wait for their ship, between Lurline and San Francisco. She had no Navy escort, as her Matson Line sister ships had in traveling the routes from Hawaii to Manila and other Southeast Asian ports, and back to Hawaii. Much daylight remained and wartime precautions had to be taken without panicking the passengers.
The SS Lurline safely arrived in San Francisco on 10 December 1941, was rapidly converted to a troop ship, and on 16 December departed San Francisco Bay as convoy guide in Convoy 2005, the first troop ship convoy to leave the West Coast after the United States entered World War II. Following her in the three-ship column were her two Matson sister ships, the Matsonia and the U.S. Army Transport Monterey. Leading and escorting the convoy as submarine screens in Task Group 15.6 was the cruiser USS St. Louis (CL-49), with the "Lucky Lou’s" captain and convoy commander, Captain George A. Rood, on board; the destroyers Lawrence (DD-250), Preston (DD-379) and Smith (DD-378).
Imperial Japanese Submarine I-26 became one of the most notorious Japanese submarines of World War II. The morning of 13 November 1942, while engaged in one of several patrols following the sinking of the Cynthia Olson, I-26 raised her periscope to see the already heavily damaged cruiser, San Francisco (CA-38 ) crossing her path in torpedo range. The American task force of three cruisers and three destroyers was zigzagging, headed for repairs at the Island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides. The other two cruisers were the Helena (CL-50) and Juneau (CL-52), like San Francisco, both damaged as a result of a fierce Naval battle in Guadalcanal’s waters during the hours after midnight.
This time Commander Yokota "snap-shot" three torpedoes that missed San Francisco. One continued on course and at 1101 hours struck the Juneau amidships. The Juneau had been heavily damaged by a torpedo which exploded in her port side during the night engagement. The explosion was believed to have broken her keel and killed 17 crew members. She was 12 feet down by the bow, listing slightly to port and struggling to maintain 18 knots, when I-26’s torpedo exploded close to the same area she had been struck by the torpedo early in the morning. About one minute later, Juneau’s main magazine violently exploded, which broke her in half, killed most of her crew, and she sank in about 20 seconds. Among her crew were the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, two of whom survived the explosion and sinking and were in the water among a total of approximately 115 men - but perished with many others before they could be rescued.
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Excerpt: A Surgeon’s Unforgettable Emergency Recall to Duty
© Bill McWilliams
The following is a short story excerpted from three chapters of the manuscript Sunday in Hell: Pearl Harbor Minute by Minute, which, among numerous other stories in the manuscript, includes the attack on Pearl Harbor as seen from the perspective of the people on the receiving end of the bitter surprise. This is about Major Leonard D. Heaton, MD, and his wife Sara Hill Heaton, and their young daughter Sara Dudley Heaton – who years later met and married Pres Mayson, a graduate in the West Point class of 1955. It also provides a glimpse into the December 1941 beginning of the evacuation, by sea, in convoys, of more than 20,000 people from the island of Oahu. The passengers on the first three convoys, which left Honolulu on 19, 26 and 31 December respectively, each escorted by a cruiser and destroyers, included some wounded and widows of the attack, military dependents, tourists (including two college football teams) "trapped" on the island by the attack, non-essential government employees ordered to leave the islands, and passengers from two of three outbound Pan American Airways Clippers, which had left San Francisco and were on round trips toward the southwest Pacific when the attack occurred. The first two evacuation convoys had to go through Japanese submarines ringing Oahu, and operating on nine stations, near our major port entrances on the US west coast.
All source notes have been removed from this manuscript excerpt, but are in the book. Virtually all sources for this story are primary sources.
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Eleven A6M2 "Zeke" fighters from the first wave of 183 Japanese aircraft from Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s Carrier Striking Force, began ravaging Naval Air Station Kaneohe first – at 0748 hours, followed moments later with 25 Aichi D3A1 "Val" dive bombers and 14 Zekes on Wheeler Field, with the remainder of 18 Zekes and 26 Vals targeted against Hickam Field (Bomber Command), Naval Air Station Pearl Harbor, on Ford Island, and Mooring Mast Field at Ewa, a Marine Corps Air Station. In the meantime, 40 Nakajima B5N1 Type 97 "Kate" torpedo bombers were descending, and 40 additional Kate high level bombers, flying at approximately 10,000 feet pressed toward the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. The Japanese intended to destroy the Navy’s PBY long range patrol aircraft based at Kaneohe to keep the Americans from finding the Japanese surface force - the Army Air Force fighters on the ground at Wheeler Field and the Navy and Marine Corps fields to ensure the Japanese maintained air superiority over the island while the raid was in progress.
Schofield Barracks, located next to Wheeler Field, also appeared to be under attack with the 39 Vals and Zekes flying in the area; however, other than isolated individual strafing attacks, on targets of opportunity, the Japanese did not specifically target Schofield and the 25th Infantry Division. Nevertheless, there were several first-wave strafing attacks at Schofield, on the Engineer, Artillery and Infantry quadrangles, the post hospital, and at least two attacks on officers’ quarters. Unquestionably, the Japanese considered military housing areas valid, though lower priority targets. As a result of attacks at Schofield and various other locations, two 25th Division soldiers were killed and seventeen were wounded.
Major Leonard D. Heaton, physician and surgeon at Schofield’s Army Hospital, and two other Army physicians, both captains assigned to the Schofield Hospital, were stunned to find themselves dangerously close to becoming casualties in two strafing attacks in the Schofield housing area. After dodging a Japanese fighter on the first firing pass down Major Heaton’s street, by going inside the house, the three doctors and Sara Hill Heaton, his wife, again stepped outside – then had to scramble for cover inside the house a second time. Throughout the Sunday morning moments of shocked disbelief, their young daughter, Sara Dudley Heaton, was in their officers’ quarters in bed, ill. Leonard Heaton wrote in his diary:
Sunday – Dec. 7, 1941: The best and happiest days of our lives went up in the smoke of Pearl Harbor, Wheeler Field, and Hickam Field today. I wonder if, when and how they will ever return.
I was standing with Capt’s Bell and (Harlan) Taylor in front of my quarters about 8 o’clock this day. We were about to get in the car to pick up Col. Canning and thence to Queen’s Hospital to attend a lecture by Dr. Jno. Moorhead of N.Y. who has been talking of traumatic surgery. We hesitated before entering the car because our attention was called to the great number of planes in the air and some very loud distant noises. Soon one plane came quite close to us and in banking to come down our street I distinctly saw the rising sun insignia on his wings. Soon he was coming down the street with machine guns blazing away at us. We rushed into the house.
As long as I live I shall never forget my feelings and emotions when I saw and realized that these were Jap planes and that we were in for the real thing. Something we never thought could ever happen to us here due to primarily our great naval force and implicit faith in such.
Back in the house Sara Hill inquired of the situation and I told her. Sara Dudley was sick with the nasal bronchitis and in bed. The four of us went back out on the sidewalk. Then we distinctly saw dive bombers and bombs over Wheeler Field and much black smoke in the direction of Pearl Harbor. There were many planes by now all over and around us. I remarked as must have many others before us in situations like this, "Where are our planes?" Whereupon another Jap plane came down our street spraying everything and everybody with machine guns. We rushed back into the house again and at this time I got an urgent call to come immediately to the hospital. I hurried off after comforting Sara Hill and Sara Dudley as best I could. The first wounded had arrived from Wheeler Field and we immediately set our operating teams in action.
The attacking Zekes that swept through the Schofield housing area left an indelible mark on the Heaton family’s lives, and a souvenir to remind them of that day. An empty shell casing from an expended 7.7-mm machine gun was ejected from the aircraft and landed in their front yard, a family keepsake and reminder for the generations. Dr. Heaton wrote much more in his diary on 7 December, after working tirelessly among the four surgical teams throughout a long, bloody day on into early evening - struggling to save lives. Many could not be saved.
The Wheeler Field hangars and aircraft on the flightline burn during the Japanese first wave attacks by 25 Val dive bombers and 14 Zekes. The view, taken by the camera of a Japanese aircraft, looks south, roughly parallel with the axis of attack by the Zekes, which peeled off from the north after the Val dive bombers had begun their attacks from west to east along the flightline. From nearby Schofield Barracks, Dr. Heaton and his family were seeing these heavy clouds of black and gray smoke rising from Wheeler Field.
Saving Lives and Counting the Losses
When the tally of killed and wounded was finally complete, in reality not until many days afterward, 2,335 military and 68 civilians had been killed or died of wounds, a total of 2,403. In addition, 1,143 military and 35 civilians were wounded, or 1,178 total. The totals included "friendly fire" dead and wounded. The devastating total of 3,581 killed and wounded, plus an unknown number who received minor wounds and medical treatment and weren’t recorded, or didn’t bother to seek medical attention, tell nothing of the human suffering and family losses. Exploding bombs and torpedoes, and powerful, fire- setting machine gun and cannon rounds, plus exploding ammunition magazines, fires feeding on huge oil tank ruptures and attendant massive fuel spills from ships, parked aircraft loaded with fuel and fuel storage areas, resulted in shattered and dismembered bodies, making many of the dead impossible to find or identify, and maiming many of the wounded for life.
A thoughtful examination of the attack’s aftermath clearly indicates the Japanese fighters and dive bombers specifically targeted fire stations, and the red-painted fire fighting equipment and their crews, with the military purpose of permitting their incendiary and tracer rounds to cause as much damage by fire as possible. Deep penetrating, high-explosive bombs and torpedoes tore through heavy armor plating on ships to both set massive fires and cause flooding. Armor piercing, tracer and incendiary rounds penetrated thinner armor plating on ships, and tore through key targets of all types on airfields, with devastating effects. The tactics and selected weapons loads paid off for the attackers.
The threat of fire on board ships is always a matter of great concern, a reason for frequent inspections and improvement of equipment, fire fighting and damage control drills. Ships are in fact enormous, high-powered, high-energy-driven floating cities loaded with hundreds of thousands of gallons of flammable fuel, and Naval combatants are literally floating arsenals and ammunition depots with redundant safety systems, partitions (bulkheads), and procedures designed around them to avoid catastrophe.
There were numerous fires on airfields, but few were as deadly and massively fatal as on the ships. Fires on ships, and on the surface of oily waters injected a different kind of horror into that day, and into the tortured memories carried in the years ahead. The images of the walking dead seen on the Arizona and men struck down or trapped by exploding bombs and horribly burned or nearly consumed by fire on the battleships West Virginia, Nevada, California, and Pennsylvania; the destroyers Shaw and Downes; the repair ship Vestal, moored to Arizona when the attack began; and the seaplane tender Curtiss. Some were burned to death before the eyes of their comrades and others who could only stand by helplessly, unable to reach them, bodies burned beyond recognition, and others burned beyond any hope of surviving, unrecognizable and lingering in slow deaths.
The tidal wave of casualties coming from ships, airfields, the city of Honolulu, and outlying areas at first seemed beyond comprehension and initially overwhelmed temporary available transportation, aid stations, designated medical treatment centers aboard damaged and sinking ships, receiving clinics, hospitals, the hospital ship USS Solace, ambulance and volunteer transportation, doctors, nurses, emergency rooms, operating rooms, pharmacies, morgues, cemeteries, and casualty identification and notification systems. While total bed capacity at the existing military and civilian hospitals was far more than sufficient to eventually absorb the influx of wounded and dying, it came at the expense of convalescing patients who had to move to make room.
Scheduled training and no-notice exercises prepared military and civilian doctors, nurses, medics, ambulance, firemen and supporting medical staffs to respond calmly and professionally to the stream of casualties, but it was, in some instances, impossible to keep up with the numbers pouring into the primary and back-up treatment centers. The number of severely wounded inevitably increased beyond the capability to give them immediate, possibly life-saving treatment. As the streams of dead and wounded poured off the ships, airfields, and other locations, the task of identifying the dead, dying, and the units or ships they came from was all too often impossible. The urgency of getting the badly wounded to treatment overcame on-site note taking or record keeping. Many men carried no identification, frequently because it was left behind when they rushed to battle stations or fled impossible circumstances. Some volunteered to assist on other ships such as Pennsylvania, turned up missing, and it took days to find out what happened to them. Many of the wounded couldn’t be found by their unit supervisors and commanders for days, and in some instances, men were declared dead who were only slightly wounded, and instead were "missing" somewhere in a hospital.
Many men were dismembered in violent explosions, their bodies separated from any form of identification they might have carried. Others were burned beyond recognition, along with any hope of identification. The recovery and rescue work, official records, and accounts of efforts by doctors, nurses, medics and volunteers tell the story. Both the Army’s Hawaiian Department, Office of the Department Surgeon, and the Navy’s Medical Department at Pearl Harbor were well prepared and responded magnificently to the crisis they confronted.
Immediately, at the Hawaiian Department’s Station Hospital at Schofield Barracks – which serviced Wheeler Field - the Station Hospital at Hickam Field, and Tripler General Hospital in Fort Shafter, as casualties began coming in, sixteen civilian surgical teams, previously assigned and organized, were dispatched to various hospitals to assist in the care of battle casualties. Additional people promptly went to open up Kamehameha School and Farrington High School as auxiliary hospitals. The same day, the Hawaiian Department issued orders to open St. Louis College as a hospital. Plans for the conversion of these schools into hospitals had previously been made, and if the battle had continued their use as auxiliary hospitals was available. Four Provisional General Hospitals and six Hawaii District Hospitals, added to three large military hospitals offered the possibility of 3,472 normal beds available, with emergency and expansion beds totaling 5,340 and 7,009 respectively – more than enough to accommodate the influx of wounded that day.
At the Station Hospital at Schofield Barracks, the second largest of the Army hospitals on Oahu, Doctor Heaton, Medical Corps and Chief of Surgical Services, arrived at the hospital minutes after he was recalled to duty. For months he and the men and women in the hospital planned and prepared for such an emergency. The Hospital staff rapidly cleared convalescent patients from beds to make room for the arriving wounded. In his diary he described what he and his operating teams faced beginning just thirty minutes after the first bomb fell on Wheeler Field:
The first wounded arrived from Wheeler Field and we immediately set our operating teams in action. We worked all that day up until early evening. I had already set up 4 of these teams on paper and they started to function as all were present. We were not caught short on personnel or equipment. Such wounds!! – eviscerations of brains, neck, thorax, abdomen – traumatic amputations, etc. No burns of any consequence. No cardiac or neurological operated cases… Surgical teams at Schofield Barracks worked tirelessly, treating 117 wounded that day. The speed with which the wounded were handled and the calm thoroughness of their treatment had much to do with the saving of life and limb. Thirty-eight of them died, most having arrived with fatal wounds. No cases of gas gangrene developed or caused deaths, a form of deadly infection in wars past, and a tribute to a new, simple life-saving procedure begun by Dr. Heaton and later recognized and used throughout the Army.
On Friday, 19 December 1941, the first of more than 20,000 people began an exodus by sea from the island of Oahu to the West Coast, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The great majority were military dependants ordered to leave the islands following the attack. Three convoys carrying more than 5,000 evacuees left Honolulu in December, and sailed through waters patrolled by six Japanese submarines in the vicinity of Oahu and nine more on stations off the West Coast. The crews and passengers on the convoys’ two to three passenger liners knew of the submarine threats, were aware of several sinkings which had occurred in the days following the attack, and didn’t know their planned destinations when they departed Honolulu. Their five to six day voyages were filled with tension, though a cruiser and and one or two destroyers provided escort as submarine screens for each convoy, depending on the number of ships in each. The evacuations continued on through the summer of 1942.
On Friday, 20 February 1942, Sara Hill Heaton and Sara Dudley Heaton, wife and daughter of Major Leonard D. Heaton, the Army surgeon at the North Sector General Hospital in Schofield Barracks on 7 December, left Oahu for the mainland on the Matson Liner, SS Lurline. On an island with a population still deeply worried about another air raid, or worse, an anguished Dr. Heaton wrote in his diary the night after his wife and daughter departed Honolulu into waters still haunted by Japanese submarine attacks.
What can I write – all I love near aboard the Lurline at 10:45 AM today. Oh God please please help me to bear up under this cross. And God please be with them every step of the way. Sara Hill held up well and I would have too but Sara Dudley started crying and then I was literally torn to shreds – this is almost like going thru the Valley of the Shadow of death – but I pray God that it is his will that in some distant day we shall draw together again. I can’t write more – tears just can’t be held back.
Three days after they left Honolulu on the Lurline, Japanese submarine I-17 shelled the oil production facility at Goleta, California, north of Santa Barbara. En route, Mrs. Heaton wrote in her diary, describing the convoy and conditions similar to those experienced by Joey Border, the wife of Ensign Robert L. "Bob" Border, a crewmember on the USS Tennesse, and other passengers in the December 1941 convoys. "…9 beds in a stateroom…put on and told to keep on life belts…1700 women - 800 children and quite a number of men…sea sickness…twins and other babies born en route…heard some women lost babies…zigzagging." The relatively large convoy she described in part in a simple diagram in her diary included a destroyer in the lead, the SS President Garfield on the port bow of Lurline; on her starboard bow was the British-owned Curnard Line’s giant, 901 foot-long, 45,647-gross ton HMS Aquitania, which took her maiden voyage from Liverpool, England in May 1914, and was built to carry 3,230 passengers as a grand ocean liner.
A cruiser was in the formation, beyond Aquitania, and the SS President Grant was on the starboard abeam of Lurline. An unnamed transport and another cruiser were off Lurline’s starboard quarter, and the 13,788-gross ton Navy transport Wharton (AP-7), was off Lurline’s port quarter. Astern of Lurline came the aircraft transport USS Kitty Hawk (AKV-1), which in early February had carried a load of airplanes to Pearl Harbor to replace those lost in the 7 December attack - and another destroyer off the starboard quarter of Kitty Hawk. Mrs. Heaton described Navy and Army airplanes overhead, escorting the convoy from Honolulu "for some distance, then disappeared." When they were en route the Grant broke down, which slowed progress considerably. Then, because of the submarine threat off the West Coast, the convoy veered considerably off the great circle route, all of which stretched five days into nine. Sara Heaton was heartened and the passengers were cheered considerably to see a Catalina PBY aircraft meet and begin escorting the convoy into its San Francisco destination.
Lieutenant General Leonard D. Heaton
Surgeon General, US Army, 1959-1969
Sara Hill Heaton’s husband completed a distinguished 40-year career as a surgeon in the Army, devoting his life to healing and saving the lives of soldiers and their families. The first surgeon in the Army to become a lieutenant general, he was named the Army’s Surgeon General from 1959 to 1969, which spanned in part the Vietnam War. During that period he became President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal physician, and provided devoted treatment to retired General of the Army Douglas MacArthur in the days before he died in 1964.
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The Capsizing of USS Oklahoma (BB-37)
© Bill McWilliams
Background and context: At 0815 hours the morning of 7 December 1941, the Oklahoma, completed her 90-degree roll onto her port side, struck by four torpedoes in the first minutes of the attack on the Pacific fleet. She hesitated, while all her compartments and superstructure continued rapidly filling with oily water, and then continued rolling to port. Hundreds of men were trapped below decks, desperately trying to save themselves and their shipmates as Oklahoma continued to settle nearly inverted.
The savaging of the Fleet had begun 21 minutes earlier, at 0754 hours, while attacks were already in progress at Kaneohe Naval Air Station beginning at 0748, Wheeler and Hickam Fields, Mooring Mast Field, at Ewa, the Marine Corps Air Station, and Naval Air Station Pearl harbor, on Ford Island. At the southeast end of Ford Island the first bomb fell 200 yards short, in shallow water, as the first Japanese torpedo bombers were charging toward Oklahoma, low across the waters of Pearl's Southeast Loch.
By 0815, seventy-five feet astern of Oklahoma, the battleship West Virginia (BB-48) had already been struck by torpedoes and bombs, was afire and sinking, her captain mortally wounded, while below decks several of West Virginia's crew members, on their own initiative, were opening valves to counter flood on her starboard side to avoid capsizing. About 375 feet off the bow of Oklahoma, the battleship California (BB-44) was already beginning to settle, struck by torpedoes and bombs. Astern of the Arizona, (BB-39) which was moored seventy-five feet astern of West Virginia, the Nevada (BB-36) had also been struck by at least one torpedo.
At 0808, while Oklahoma's crew members were fighting a desperate battle to escape their rapidly capsizing ship, the Arizona, already hit by one torpedo, suffered a violent explosion which broke her back. A 1,765-pound bomb released from approximately 10,000 feet by a Nakajima "Kate" level bomber penetrated her weather deck between the Number I and Number 2 turrets, slashing downward through multiple decks into her forward magazine, where it triggered the huge, fatal, secondary explosion. The death toll on Arizona would eventually rise to 1,177 men. The violent explosion literally blew approximately 100 crewmen and the captain of the repair ship Vestal (AR-4) overboard, rained body parts and deadly pieces of steel on surrounding ships, and started a raging inferno that threatened the battleships Tennessee (BB-43) and Nevada.
The huge fires on board Arizona and West Virginia made circumstances increasingly dangerous for men trying desperately to save themselves and others, for the waters around the battleships were accumulating thousands of gallons of fuel oil gushing from the battleships' ruptured tanks, oil relentlessly pushed down the battle line toward the harbor entrance by the outgoing tide and a wind from the east northeast.
Across the main channel to the east, and on the west side of Ford Island other ships' crews were also waging desperate fights to avoid losing their ships and shipmates while fighting enemy raiders bearing down on the harbor from seemingly every direction.
Before the last Japanese aircraft exited their target area approximately 1000 hours, 18 of 94 ships in Pearl Harbor had been heavily damaged or sunk, and 2,335 military and 68 civilians had been killed in the harbor, on airfields and in surrounding communities. In addition 1,143 military and 35 civilians were wounded, and uncounted numbers received unreported minor wounds. On the mortally wounded Oklahoma, 429 men died, 986 survived, 32 of them rescued in three frantic, harrowing days of hunting for sounds coming from inside her upturned hull.
Two of her crew posthumously received the Medal of Honor, having sacrificed their lives trying to assist others to safety from their overturning, rapidly flooding gun turrets, by holding flashlights: Seaman First Class James Richard Ward of Springfield, Ohio and Ensign Francis Charles Flaherty of Charlotte, Michigan.