Author’s Note: I read “Day of Infamy” by Walter Lord when I was 11 years old. It is still the best first-hand account of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A great read you won’t be able to put down.
At 8 am on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the 183 Japanese planes of the first attack wave descended on Pearl Harbor. Admiral Nagumo’s attack fleet was less than 100 miles from Pearl. Luckily the Enterprise, the huge American aircraft carrier, was at sea. Not so lucky was the fact that the American battleship fleet was anchored and inert, tied up in a neat row called Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor. The battleships were huge sitting targets. Even if someone had sounded an alarm when the planes were spotted on radar, it wouldn’t have made that much difference as it takes two hours for a battleship’s boilers to come up to full pressure so she can move properly. All of the battleships at Pearl had dead cold boilers that morning. Completely tied up at anchor, after coming up to full boiler pressure, it would have taken another 45 minutes with the help of multiple tugboats to get a battleship away from Battleship Row and moving.
It was Sunday morning and almost everyone was at Sunday morning services. However, to this fact and everything I stated in the preceding paragraph, there was one exception. The Battleship USS Nevada had about one-third of her crew and one officer and one quartermaster aboard. The boilers of the Nevada were at about half pressure. She was making repairs, even on Sunday morning.
The Japanese planes of the first attack wave descended without any warning whatsoever. Seeing the sitting ducks on Battleship Row, the pilots converged instantly for the attack on the American ships.
The Nevada was the last ship on Battleship Row in position 8. Ahead of her at anchor was the Battleship USS Arizona. In the first 15 minutes of the attack, a bomb struck the Arizona perfectly penetrating her forward deck armor and exploding her forward ammunition magazine. The entire ship detonated in a huge explosion. The explosion killed 1,117 of her crew of 1,400. Half the ship was gone and the other half was a burning inferno.
All of Pearl Harbor was mad confusion. People running everywhere trying to get to their posts, pinned down by strafing Japanese planes. On the Nevada, the highest ranking officer was Ensign Joseph Taussig, Jr. He was the youngest officer, just out of the Naval Academy and had only been on the Nevada a few days. Also aboard was Quartermaster Chief Robert Sedberry, a man with many years of experience. Ens. Taussig manned the forward anti-aircraft battery himself. A shell smashed his leg, it would later be amputated. Still conscious, he continued to command the anti-aircraft defense. Meanwhile, Sedberry and others made the decision to take the ship into action. They must swing the ship free from her berth without the aid of tugboats, without two hours to bring the ship to full steam, without a civilian harbor pilot, without the navigator, and without the captain. Sedberry manned the helm.
She got past the burning remains of the Arizona just barely. As the Nevada slowly pulled free of her anchorage and steamed down past Battleship Row wild screaming cheers were heard all over Pearl. There she was, the Nevada moving! She was heading for the harbor mouth. She was heading out to sea for the counter attack! As she got about dead center of Pearl Harbor, out of the sky came 171 Japanese planes, the second wave attack.
The Japanese pilots of the second wave were greeted by a riveting sight. Most of the American ships were in flames but a single American battleship was moving out to sea. They knew very well that this ship had 14-inch guns on board. These guns could fire accurately over 20 miles. This ship could do over 30 knots (about 35 miles per hour). In two hours at full speed, she would be in range of their attack fleet. A single 14-inch shell would pierce the unarmored deck of any of their aircraft carriers. One shot might easily sink a Japanese carrier.
The entire second wave descended on Nevada. It is interesting to note that it is not so easy to hit a moving target as it is to punch holes in a sitting duck. However, Nevada wasn’t moving that fast and there were 171 planes to get her. Soon Nevada was on fire from one end of the ship to the other. She had been torpedoed and was taking on water. Ens. Taussig, although severely wounded, continued anti-aircraft fire at the Japanese planes. Chief Quartermaster Sedberry had been radioed a final order. If the Nevada sunk in the harbor channel she would plug Pearl Harbor for a prolonged period of time. Most of the crew had already abandoned ship. The Quartermaster and a few men guided the huge ship towards Hospital Point just inside the harbor mouth to the east. There they beached the Nevada in the sand like a giant canoe. Still conscious, Taussig was carried off the ship.
What is significant about this? Why am I relating this story? Simply because human events, their outcomes and their significance, are so hard to predict. At first, you might think the Nevada‘s short but glorious cruise a total waste and insignificant. However, because she was moving when the second wave appeared, most of the Japanese planes wasted their bombs attacking her. If the Japanese pilots had instead found all of the American ships out of action, they would have immediately turned their attention to the rest of Pearl Harbor’s extensive military facilities. The dry docks most of all. Back in Tokyo, Admiral Yamamoto received the full report. He was furious about the second wave and its failure to bomb the dry docks. He said:
“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Because of Nevada, most of Pearl remained intact and was fully operational in short order. With Pearl Harbor’s facilities, The American fleet quickly recovered. At the Battle of Coral Sea, the Japanese found themselves to be less than invincible and suffered major damage.
With the help of a brilliant American code breaker, The American fleet ambushed the Japanese fleet at Midway. This battle crushed the Japanese and broke the back of their fleet. Midway was measure for measure for Pearl Harbor. Nevada‘s short but heroic effort did more than just lift the spirits of the men fighting and dying at Pearl that day. She made it possible for the counter attack to take place.
One should always remember that G-d is in control of events. Sometimes we can foresee events and sometimes not. It is therefore important to serve in the moment both dutifully and creatively and leave the rest to G-d. This is why freedom is so important. Even a young ensign or an old quartermaster might make contributions that affect the outcome of the entire war. When men are free, they hold themselves to a higher standard than any tyrant can obtain from his lackeys. No matter how much power the tyrant holds, the free man will prove superior.
Authors Note: I first posted this in 2012. I made some small changes for a repost in 2013. No changes but a minor title change for 2014. No changes but a little grammatical polishing for 2015 and 2016. The photos of “Battleship Row” and “free and heading for the harbor mouth” were added in 2016.