My Grandfather Bill Baker’s On-Site Account of the Attack on Pearl Harbor
I never knew my grandfather. By all accounts, though, Bill Baker was a great man — humble, kind, and accepting of everyone. He also happened to be part of the infamous event that occurred 75 years ago today at Pearl Harbor — and he lived to tell about it. (My father and I are particularly very thankful for that — existing is a good thing.)
And tell about it, he did. Though my father and I did join forces to create a Kindle ebook version of Bill’s Pearl Harbor journal in time to commemorate the anniversary (and I would recommend checking out that version if this truly interests you ), it’s important to us that its contents reach as many people as possible.
What you’ll find below are the three entries the casual historian will find the most interesting — the day of the attack (Bill began writing it just four hours later) and the aftermath two days later and on New Year’s Eve. The rest of what you’ll find in the 99-cent Kindle book are an introduction from my father, Randy Baker (which you can read for free in the preview feature) and a transcription of the journal through 1942, which will mainly be of interest to those who want to get a feel of what it was like to be a sailor in the navy living day-to-day life.
And if you’re interested in checking out a PDF of the entire journal contents in Bill’s handwriting, click here. Totally free — and please feel free to share.
REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR!!
On December 7, 1941, at 11:45 a.m., I began the following letter to my family:
Doubtless you have heard the news that is being made in this fair city, the so-called Paradise of the Pacific, or what now may now be termed the Death Trap of the Pacific.
At this time the list of known dead and wounded is impossible to even estimate, but by the time you receive this letter, you will have the exact numbers and their social security numbers, no doubt.
I am aboard the Rigel, which is lying tied up to the repair docks within a very few hundred yards with the former might of the U.S. Navy. And I do mean former might.
This morning, at exactly ten minutes of eight, I drowsily shook my head trying to clear the sleep from my eyes and then — BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Well, so thought I: Must be having artillery practice or something of that sort. Then I turned over and prepared to go back into slumberland. Pow-Pow-Pow-Pow, pom-pom guns, anti-aircraft guns, and everything so it seemed, turned loose with all the shells possible.
Well, yours truly said that something was haywire in Honolulu, so I hit the deck and plenty quick. (Just let loose with big guns now and the fire is shaking the ship every five or ten seconds. Incidentally, the guns are not on our ship — we are entirely gunless. And all of our super-structure above the top deck is on the docks.)
Well, back to the deck that I hit at about ten minutes and so many seconds after eight. I grabbed my shoes to find that there was a knot in one of the strings, so I put on one shoe and took the other in my hand and ran like — — to my locker. There, I grabbed an extra shoe, one of my Sunday shoes, and slapped it on my unshod foot! (A chief storekeeper just came down with the news that one of our surviving battleships, the Nevada, was hit as it was steaming out of the danger area toward the open sea and comparative security.) Then with my work shoe and Sunday shoe on my feet, I started for topside. Gained the hatchway, where I could see the open sky filled with smoke, glanced over to the spot where the battleships tie up and saw one with the bottom up and a large oil fire behind this overturned ship. Another battlewagon was settling down into the water, slowly but such a sight that is truly breathtaking. Instantly, I began wondering if the crew had a Chinaman’s chance, and then I knew they didn’t. We were asleep and so were the majority of them, I sincerely believe. The men in the ship were undoubtedly trapped; it must have overturned within a very few minutes. It seems that these ships were hit and set ablaze before we ever fired a shot.
Over in the other direction, there was a large column of smoke climbing in large spirals in ever-increasing circles onward and up into the sky. It could be any of a number of things — an oil tank, an oil tanker, or another ship.
(Latest report just came down that we have exactly one battlewagon left out of the nine that were afloat here. Twenty-six ships out of eighty-four were out of commission at eleven o’clock.)
(Reports are that the Japanese fleet is concentrated within twenty-five miles of here. That means that we will probably be under fire from the fleet within a short while — all we have left to protect us is about eight cruisers. Reports are that our airfields are completely demolished… During the entire period of bombing, we did not have a ship in the sky…or at least there were no signs of them around the harbors, which seems to me would be the place for them to be.)
About the time I finished looking one good clean sweep around, we were told to get below down into the bilges.
Down we went, about sixty or seventy-five of us, down into the very bowels of the Rigel, standing around in groups, giving forth opinions and latest “dope.” Standing with our hands in our pockets, listening to the pounding of guns and the bursting of shells. Each time the destroyer tied up next to us fired her guns, the ship shook from the concussion.
Blooom!!! The ship jumped a few inches and everyone started for the ladder. We thought that the ship had been hit and was going down…
Then came the request to stay below until given the word to clear out.
After several minutes that seemed like hours — being with a very inquisitive nature, I headed for the topside — and got as far as the head (toilet to you landlubbers). Don’t get the wrong idea, there were some portholes there that I could look out of since we could not go topside.
From about 8:30 until around 9:20, I stood with my eyes glued to the porthole. From it, I had a view of the area on the port side of our ship. Included in my view was a destroyer of the Kearny type, several smaller cans of old four-stack destroyers of the type given to England, two cruisers, and a number of smaller craft.
About 8:45, a bomber came into the show. It circled over the territory in front of the Rigel going in a slow easy circle, gradually and casually looking over the remains, or possibly looking for something else; all this time, the destroyer nearby and the ships around were releasing shell after shell, which merely made large, black puffs in ever-increasing numbers, about one hundred fifty to two hundred yards behind the sleepy-looking ship. Soon it disappeared from the view, but the guns on the tincan kept pounding away every now and then, seemingly at invisible targets.
A few minutes later the cruisers, I suppose, released a smokescreen to cover their position, and the entire area was enveloped in heavy black fog. A strong gust of wind cleared the sky for a moment, and the masts of the cruisers stuck up out of the bellowing smoke as if they were tempting the flyers to try and hit them also.
About the time I finished commenting to myself, another sleek cigar-shaped plane came into sight in the distance. It came from the opposite direction in which the other one was going; and it was gliding along in about the same easy circle only opposite. The can sighted the plane and began another barrage… yet the plane never wavered… (Later heard that the destroyer had bagged four, but have my doubts from the way they missed when I was watching.)
At about 9:20, I was told to get below again — so below I went. The gunfire was terrible as I joined the group huddled together like so many cattle in the midst of a cold water rain storm.
Shortly after I left my post, the can steamed out of the berth still firing, in search of a sub that had gained access to the harbor. Their search was successful, and the sub had no survivors.
In the bilges, I swapped stories with the other members of the crew until about 10:30, at which time I went up on topside to get another view of the happenings.
The battlewagons were still a very perplexing sight, overturned, on fire, listing, and one had even settled very deeply in the water. Smoke was rolling from several gasoline and oil fires from direct hits on buildings on shore, and from several planes that had “bit the dust.”
Reports of hits on two destroyers in drydock and of a hit on the Pennsylvania also being repaired were accepted as straight dope.
Small boats covered the water around the ill-fated battleships picking men soaked with oil from the water and taking those remaining on the burning ships to safety.
Rumors and reports — reports and rumors. More and more “scuttlebutt” is being passed around, and exaggerated just a little more as it goes from one to the other. I would pass a few of these out, but had rather verify them before doing so.
Com officer has just given us the lowdown as he saw it from top of the nearby mountain. Believe you me, he witnessed a most spectacular sight. One of our ships (the Nevada) was on its way out of the harbor when about twelve planes attacked it. According to the officer as an eye witness, only two out of the twelve planes missed the ship, and they missed only by a few yards.
The officers stated that the planes released mines all around the harbor. He saw the splashes, as the mines hit the water — lots of them.
It is now ten minutes after two, and we still do not know the worst aboard our own ship; yet we know that several men have been killed and several others were wounded.
The air is clear, but a tense feeling exists as if we can feel lots more coming and can do absolutely nothing about it.
For some reason or other, I failed to get scared. Maybe I do not have enough sense to — or something — but I sincerely think that if the event of the end comes, it will be quick and painless. Yet, I believe and hope that such is still many years away.
Incidentally, I hope that such a pounding as the one that we went through this a.m. will be even further off — so far off that it won’t happen.
Well, so being for now. Will be back as soon as convenient, or as soon as something more happens.
December 9, 1941
Today, the shaky nerves of the sailors stationed in the “Paradise of the Pacific” have almost settled down to normal.
All hands left have returned to their regular routine (excepting those who have no ships) as followed previous to the short but successful encounter with (or by) Japan.
In my former letter I signed off about the middle of the afternoon of the “fatal” seventh; therefore the following is an account of the events taking place since that time to date.
Sunday afternoon was filled with the hurry and bustle of rescue workers, giving their all to free any and all imprisoned men in the overturned Oklahoma. Others were striving to bring under control an oil fire that was erupting from the bowels of either the California or Arizona. Still others were dishing out coffee and eats encouragement or aid to those working, and still more (such as myself) were hanging around their ships, gaping at the hulks of the ill-fated ships in utter disbelief and wishing they were somewhere else doing anything that would be of just a little of value.
Rumors kept coming and going — a battle at sea — naturally all were in our favor and if such were true, the Japs have lost, heavily. Reports stated that twenty-one ships have been sunk in the encounter.
All went well as could be until dark; then a complete blackout was carried out over the entire island. Here in the harbor, not a light could be seen; in the city, shortwave radio informed us of the police activities enforcing the blackout.
Occasional bursts of antiaircraft guns, machineguns, and other types of peace preservers kept one’s nerves on edge as the gunners satisfied themselves that all was in readiness for any and everything…..
This kept us up until somewhere around nine o’clock…..
All of a sudden the gunfire became terrific. Our guns of all types and sizes were letting themselves out.
From my bunk, I was able to see only the flashes from the guns, as the light gained access to the hatch (covered by a canvas overhead) by which I sleep…sometimes.
At once we knew that the Japs were on us and there was nothing that we could do — except run to the bilges and just wait, or be as we were and just wait — so I decided upon the latter, hoping that the next bomb went but near the good ole Rigel….
Shortly, as suddenly as the noise had started, it stopped… Everyone headed for the topside to have a looksee.
Tracer bullets were dotting the sky in periodic spurts, serving as flares to light up the sky in the event of other planes traveling by.
Soon, word came to us via grapevine that we had scored a direct hit on one plane. It had burst into flames and fallen into the water… The only drawback being that it was one of our own planes.
The remainder of the night was spent in the tossing on a bunk that seemed as hard as a rock. Immediately after shutting my eyes, I am positive that the sound of the master at arms voiced yelling “hit the deck” came to my ears.
Almost as soon as my eyes opened, gunfire started in full swing. Pom-poms opened up and five inch guns on a cruiser behind us rocked the Rigel with each salvo.
Later in the day news came that we had been firing at our own planes again, but with no success, thank goodness.
During the earlier part of Monday, rescue work was continued. Reports of successful attempts made us happy as stories of failure saddened the bit of softness left in our hearts.
Rumors of a sea battle became strengthened as a cruiser and several cans came into port long enough to take on supplies and fuel, then head out again. Also, news from Washington verified the fact that several Jap subs had met their Waterloo in the skirmish of the previous day.
Planes — American planes — flying overhead gladdened our souls as we were assured that the U.S. Army and Navy were now on “sure-’nough” alert…
Actual damage done by the Japs still consisted of only survivors. Yet, we were able to see enough as well as hear more from actual survivors or eyewitnesses.
The Arizona was aground, and a fire outdid the best efforts of two tugboats that were slinging water in all directions, trying to put out the blaze. The Oklahoma was overturned, and the Maryland penned into the mooring by Okie’s upturned keel. The West Virginia is sunk, and the Tennessee penned in by its inability to move. The California is sitting on the bottom; all of these within sight, so there can be no mistake in such statements. The Nevada is beached on the far side of the channel.
All of these ships damaged were hit by aerial torpedoes as well as bombs…
The Pennsylvania was reported badly damaged. Two repair amid supply ships, the Vestal and the Medusa (one of the largest floating machine shop in the world), are out of commission. The Vestal is grounded within sight. The Oglala, our largest and fastest minelayer, is leaning on her side near the dock — within throwing distance of the Rigel. Two cans are down and two others in drydock are demolished. Several cruisers were reported disabled.
Being of the inquisitive type, I went A.W.O.L. for a short while to get a view of the surroundings.
I journeyed over to the drydock to see what damage had been done.
The Pennsylvania was hit just aft of midship on a small gun. How badly damaged she is I do not know, but there were no holes in her side as rumored.
The two cans were completely demolished. Never have I seen a greater picture of destruction. The two destroyers of the two-stack Kearny type were battered from tip to stern by bombs. Oil from their tanks had burned over the greater portion of both ships. The remainder was oil covered and debris strewn. The forward torpedoes of one must have exploded, for the whole section surrounding the torpedo tubes was a complete mass of twisted wreckage…
Coming back to the Rigel, I saw the Helena, a light cruiser supposed to have been badly damaged, and could see no apparent hits on the port side…yet there is a possibility of such being on the starboard side.
The remainder of the day passed without any startling or new developments. We spent most of the afternoon and much of the evening listening over a shortwave sent to stations located in the States.
The president’s speech to Congress was heard, as well as all of the news as it became available to the broadcasting system we were listening to. It was rather amusing to hear the distorted reports of the announcers pertaining to the isle of Oahu. News of the several different countries joining with us in declaring war was something worth hearing if they have anything to help us with.
And so went the second day of war for the navy. The first considering the formal declaration by Congress.
Early this morning, December 9, the sheriff bellowed forth with his “hit the deck” ultimatum again. Quarters (where roll is called) were held about 5:30. Then back to the bunk for some more shuteye, then to my radio.
Today I visited the spot where the first Jap plane was shot down in flames. Naturally, I recovered some very nice souvenirs.
By the way, several parts taken from the plane have been brought aboard the Rigel, and there is no question of such parts and the plane itself being an American model. The engine is a Pratt & Whitney product.
Very ironic, it seems to me, to think that the ships and planes came to Hawaii on fuel sold to them by Americans. The fish (torpedoes) they carried and used so effectively were made out of scrap steel sold to them by Americans. The shrapnel that scattered from one side of the islands to the other killing U.S. sailors was another product made from scrap iron obtained from the U.S.
I wonder what the reaction was of the pot-bellied money-grabbing financiers instrumental in these sales when they heard of the destruction by the Japs.
And I also wonder if the American people will allow the profiteers of the future to follow in the same way that these have followed the munition makers and war mongers of the first World War….
And so — we come to the close of another working day, the third day of the War in the Pacific.
Here are my sincere hopes that all of the rest of the days that we are at war with Japan will be as uneventful and quiet — here — as this day has been.
So long for a while,
Dec. 31, 1941
Since writing the letter found preceding this on December 9, time has literally “flown.”
For about a week following the Jap “blitz,” all liberty was canceled.
Quarters sounded nearly every morning at 4:30. This made the day very long, but the time still flew.
Excitement flared every now and then on one side or another. Several Jap suicide subs were spotted and taken care of.
Blackouts became effective the night of the 7th . . . yet there is a slight let-up on the part of the navy in that several lights around the yard still burn. Workmen using arc welders and cutting torches make a perfect flare in the area of total darkness.
The two battlewagons pinned in by the wrecked Oklahoma and Arizona have been doctored and sent to sea. The Penny replaced her crippled gun and set out with them.
Several cruisers hit in the raid have been repaired and unberthed.
Two convoys from the States have brought planes, guns, ammunition, and men. The repair unit from the Destroyer Base in San Diego has arrived to work on the damaged vessels.
Several submarines have strengthened our suicide force, and mosquito boats are coming in with each convoy.
Guns are bristling over the entire island, and especially here at Pearl Harbor. Fifty-caliber and thirty-caliber machineguns are mounted on buildings, ship docks, and every possible place.
We are as near ready as we can be for anything to pop.
A visit to Hickam Field today revealed the damage done by the dogs of Japan to our Bombardment squadron.
The barracks had been hit by incendiary bombs, and the top story of the buildings were all burned, yet the concrete floors protected those floors beneath.
One hangar was bombed rather severely, and several others received direct hits.
Yet everything was cleared away, and all hands were busily engaged in setting up P-40s and getting B-17s and B-18s ready to fly.
So went the last day of the last month of the Year 1941.
And the evening passed away as quietly and as quickly.