Aboard the U.S. Sumner: A diary entry from Pearl Harbor from Dec. 7, 1941

 

When I was a little girl, growing up the youngest of five children in Davis, Calif., I used to be in awe of what I saw in my father’s seagoing trunk.

It was filled with all sorts of exotica. Bizarre seashells, tortoise jewelry from Tonga, heavily embroidered and very gaudy silks from China, bullets, military decorations and gold cufflinks, meerschaum pipes,  leathery ropes of tobacco, a gourd with some medicinal native powder in it, and – most interesting of all – my father’s diaries from World War II.

At that age, I’d look through those diaries and be amazed that my dad commented on some hot chick in New Guinea (surely, he had never eyed another woman besides my mother, right?), or how he had obtained wild boar in Bora Bora for his shipmates to dine on. Older now, I realize his diaries chronicled a singular time in our country, when the greatest generation, of which he is no doubt a member, was at its greatest.

Warren Karl Taylor, dad, is now 91 years old. A survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago today, he never talked much about the war when I was growing up. His sea chest in the hall closet and the wool uniforms with tarnished gold stripes on the sleeves in the coat closet near the front door were the only real testimony we saw or heard about his service.

But upon the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Time magazine had a short blurb about his recollection of the events of Dec. 7, 1941.

That opened up the floodgates.

He got back in touch with shipmates, and even came to Mississippi when I was living there for the dedication of the new U.S.S. Sumner, a ship of the same name as the one he had served on as a supply officer and cryptographer at Pearl Harbor.

The WWII Sumner was a hydrographic survey ship that mapped harbors before battleships entered them. It was off battleship row at Pearl Harbor, and being a small ship was not a target of the attack. It was outfitted with outdated World War I guns, but managed to shoot down the first Japanese plane of the war, at 8:03 a.m. Dec. 7, four minutes after general quarters was sounded when the sneak attack by Japan began.

My dad was an ensign at the time, and stayed on the Sumner until the end of May, 1944, whereupon he transferred to the new attack transport ship the  U.S.S. Sarasota, which participated in the attack on Okinawa, the occupation of Japan and Operation Magic Carpet, bringing home veterans of the war in the Pacific.

At the war’s end, my father was a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy. The first college graduate in his family, he returned to U.C. Berkeley and went to law school on the GI Bill. He married my mom, started a family, became a lawyer for the Regents of the University of California and others. In 1963, Gov. Pat Brown appointed him as judge for the Superior Court of the State of California, a job he had for most of my childhood and until his retirement.

All of his children are thankful for his service in the war, and for his continued good health at the age of 91.

“It is hard to believe that 70 years have elapsed since Pearl Harbor,” my sister Eleanor emailed me the other day.

“I have often thought of where we might be had it not been for our parents’ generation who saved our future.”

My dad, too, is thankful.

Thankful to be alive.

“My most indelible memory is that I thought I was going to die; that it would happen any instant and there was nothing I could do to prevent it,” he wrote on Monday, two days before the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

“Everything I could see was exploding, shrapnel was falling on the harbor like rain, the harbor was covered with oil, some of it on fire, I was knocked to the deck numerous times, and at 8:03 a.m., when we shot down a Japanese torpedo plane, preparing to lay its torpedo about 200 yards off our fantail, I thought the SUMNER was going to capsize from the explosion.

“I was terrified, and in retrospect still find it hard to believe that I am alive at the age of 91.

“May it never happen again.”

 

This is my father’s diary entry from Dec. 7, 1941.

He was 21 years old.

Ens. Warren K. Taylor.

 

WAR 

December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, T.H.

Since eight o’clock this morning, I have learned an important lesson in life. I have come to appreciate the full significance of modern warfare and the many advantages of past days spent in an atmosphere of peace and security. Perhaps the most dreadful experience in life is the knowledge that thousands of people about you are being killed and maimed, your life is in danger, and that any moment the bomb may be released which is marked for you. My reaction, all day long, has been a fervent desire to return to the United States, to be with my family, and to live again in an atmosphere of peace, order and civilization.

Many hours have elapsed since I have slept, and I should be in bed, but I will preserve a few memories while they are fresh.

At 0755 the gangway watch disrupted our peaceful Sunday morning breakfast by breaking into the Wardroom and reporting “There are some planes dropping bombs on the Yard, I don’t know whether its a drill or not.” Immediately, all of us scrambled out onto the fantail, where we saw dive bombers peeling off one by one and dropping white appearing bombs on the industrial or central section of the navy yard.

Initially, we were rather casual about it, I was confident it must be a drill of some sort (a reds v. blue war game), as were my fellow junior officers. So we stood on the fantail, exchanged remarks, marveled at how realistic it was, and had colors at 0800 as usual. About 0800, torpedo planes started slowly skimming down Southeast Loch, about 100 yards off our stern, at an elevation of about 50 feet. They were so low and near, we had an opportunity to scrutinize them carefully. They were painted a gun-metal gray color, their torpedoes were on the outside of the fuselage, there was a large, red sun, and their corps insignia appeared in red just aft of the sun. I learned later in the day that a torpedo has to run through the water about 200 feet to arm itself so it will explode, and these planes were positioning themselves so they would arm and hit our battleships, which were lined up in a row perpendicular to, and near the entrance to Southeast Loch, where the submarine base is. The pilots also came in low because they wanted their torpedoes to have a shallow dive so they would not get stuck in the mud. It was a spectacular sight. There must have been at least 50 dive and torpedo bombers participating in the attack, but their movements made the sky seem full of them. They were diving, hedgehopping and zooming all around and it was impossible to keep track of them or to tell when they were headed in our direction, except that the torpedo planes slowly eased down Southeast Loch near the submarine base, ignoring us, but so close we could almost reach out and touch them.

In a matter of moments, huge columns of smoke belched skyward from several places around the Base, and big gushers of water erupted where bombs missed their target and hit the water. The noise from the explosions was deafening and the concussion tremendous. Suddenly, there was a big flash of light, followed by a thunderous blast, when a torpedo plane was shot down by the Naval Air Station at Ford Island. Then the light began to dawn on me that we had to be at war with Japan, that this was not make-believe. For a number of years, we have had strained relations with Japan because of her expansionist activities, and we have always imposed oil and steel embargoes on her, but we have always perceived ourselves as being invincible, especially here at Pearl Harbor. In this setting, it is nothing short of astonishing that a debacle like this could occur, even though war has not been declared and diplomatic relations have not been severed.

Shortly after colors, General Quarters sounded and al of us bolted to our battle stations, still in an uncertain frame of mind. We still seemed reluctant about opening fire because of lingering doubt whether it was a drill; war was too incredible. My battle station was the Coding Board (cryptography), and the first message we received from CINCPAC was the plain English admonition “This is not a drill.” With that assurance, we opened fire in earnest and, surprisingly, we were one of the first ships in our area to open fire. We did not inflict much damage, however, since most of the crew had not fired the AA guns before.

One of the oversights was that some of the gun crews did not set the shells for shrapnel firing. The anti-aircraft gun adjacent to my battle station, I observed, fired at a plane flying over a nearby warehouse and the glowing, red projectile passed about three feet under the fuselage of the plane. It appeared that the plane got away undamaged.

If the shell had fragmented, the opposite result probably would have occurred. In addition, our anti-aircraft guns are vintage types (3” shell x 23” barrel) which are no longer considered effective. However, we did shoot down one of the torpedo planes. It came hedgehopping over the warehouse across the slip from us, and started to ease down our dock channel, getting ready to drop its torpedo. It was about 40 feet about the water and 200 yards off our stern when Red Campbell, BM2/c, a colorful bosun’s mate who manned the port anti-aircraft gun on the stern, lined it up and fired as if he were in a shooting gallery. The projectile apparently hit the torpedo warhead, or the plane’s gas tank, because there was a tremendous flash, followed by an ear-splitting blast, and the plane disintegrated; not even pieces of it were left.

While the attack was in progress, the blasts, reverberations and noise were beyond belief. Although our view of battleship row was obstructed by a low-lying peninsula of land, we could see some of the explosions and the black smoke over the top of it. When the magazines of the ARIZONA exploded, it reminded me of a fourth of July celebration to end them all. Shells were shooting into the sky like roman candles, sometimes pirouetting in the air like fancy fireworks displays, and the blast of the explosions was deafening and rocked everything. But the ARIZONA was just one source of the fireworks. The SHAW, a destroyer, took a direct hit from a bomb, its magazines also exploded and its burned fiercely, emitting great billows of black smoke along with pyrotechnics almost as spectacular as those of the ARIZONA. Adjacent to the SHAW, and in drydock, were the CASSIN and the DOWNES, destroyers. Their throes of death were as spectacular as anything I observed. A bomb landed in their drydock, splitting open their seams, causing fuel oil to leak into the drydock. The oil caught fire, making their magazines explode, and the aerial explosion of their ammunition, together with the dense, black smoke resulting from their cremation in drydock, was one of the most devastating and persistent spectacles in the harbor, coupled with the horrible thought of crews trying to flee from their ships by means of the usual wooden ramps attached to the edge of the drydock.

There are rumors that other battleships and lesser vessels also were bombed and torpedoed, adding to the conflagration and din, but at this juncture reliable information is not available.

The SUMNER has been on the sidelines of all of this destruction and explosive force, so far, but I have found my steel helmet to be a very comforting item of warfare. I have had to traverse the main deck from time to time, and I found shrapnel strewn over the deck and it frequently pelts the water around us like rain.

….It must be said that the Japanese attack was very, very clever and brilliantly planned. They had the element of surprise on their side and they used it fully to their advantage. They must be very happy with the results. Among other things, the results have certainly dampened my confidence in battleships.

Until this morning, I used to look at those big battlewagons and think how powerful and virtually unsinkable they were. But no more. I prefer to take my chances on an obscure vessel like the SUMNER, and not be a primary target.

By Louise Red Corn

Comments are closed.