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My grandfather's memories of Pearl Harbor

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 12:33 p.m. MDT

USS Oklahoma (BB-37) (Public Domain Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. ) USS Oklahoma (BB-37) (Public Domain Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. )

I want to first start off by writing; my grandfather, Gordon Elmer Douglass was a very humble man. He never bragged about his service in the navy. He never bragged about the experiences that allowed him to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor. My grandfather would probably be embarrassed that I’m writing this. I write this to honor him and to honor the sacrifices made by all those who fought tyrany in World War II. I write this to honor the memory of those who died at Pearl Harbor and the 429 shipmates of my Grandfather who went down with the “Okie”. Roger Douglass, December 7, 2011

Gordon Elmer Douglass was born September 30, 1918 in the small mining town of Eureka, Utah. His father was Samuel Douglass and mother was Pearl McClellan Douglass. Grandpa Douglass was very generous to me. About a year before he died he helped me pay off a large debt that I owed. I could never repay him but I named my first born boy, Gordon Roger Williams Douglass, after him. Grandpa Douglass was from a generation that has been named The Greatest Generation because of the sacrafices their generation made to the United States of America to make it a better place. This was a generation that suffered through The Great Depression and World War II.

Ensign Gordon E. Douglass (U.S. Navy) Ensign Gordon E. Douglass (U.S. Navy)

December 12, 1940, my Grandfather was commissioned Ensign in the United States Navy and was assigned to the USS Oklahoma which had been based at Pearl Harbor six days earlier. The USS Oklahoma was a World War I era ship that had been commissioned May 2, 1916. She was modernized between 1927 and 1929 and was made famous in 1936 for rescuing U.S. citizens from the Spanish Civil War in 1936. This is my grandfather’s story, in his own words:

“I’ve always had a good memory for people, and at a church fireside I saw a fellow who looked like Keith Taylor. I looked at his right hand and he was missing his thumb, so then I knew it was Keith. He didn’t recognize me until I introduced myself to him. I said that he hadn’t seen me since I was 13 in 1932, because that is when I moved to Salt Lake. He said, “You haven’t seen me since I was 8, because that is when I moved away.” He seemed quite excited about meeting someone from home and he gave me his card. He said that he now had a large room with two beds, and if I ever needed to stay in town overnight, to call him on the phone.

Gordon E. Douglass later in life. (Craig S. Douglass) Gordon E. Douglass later in life. (Craig S. Douglass)

On December 6, I had the coding room watch from noon until 4:00 PM. I thought that if the boat to shore was late that I might still have time (to go see Keith.) I ran to my room and changed clothing, but by the time I got to the gangway, the boat was on its way to the officers landing. We were never allowed to call a boat back, so I just went back to my room, and felt sorry for myself. I had notified the duty officer and the wardroom that I was going ashore. Now I notified the steward that I would be aboard for dinner. As I walked into the wardroom, Ensign Stern was playing the record Perfidia on the Victorola. He asked me if I was going to stay aboard ship. I replied that I was, and he asked me if I would stand by for him so that he could go ashore. I agreed, so he called his duty officer, who declined his request because I was not a qualified engineering officer.

I lay down on my bed to rest before changing back to my uniform. I was just settled down and almost asleep, when the Officer on Deck announced that in 10 minutes an extra boat would be leaving the USS Maryland, which was tied to the Okie’s starboard side. I jumped up to go ashore. Then I thought, no I’ll just stay aboard now. I became restless though. Whispers came to me saying, “Gordon, you don’t get enough exercise. Go ashore, go out on a date, have some fun.” I said, “Okay, okay.” I jumped up and went to my wall safe. I don’t know why, but I removed all my money from my safe ($280.00). I put $30.00 back, which was enough to pay my mess bill. This was an odd thing for me to do, because I never carried more than $28.00 with me. I packed a bag with shoes, socks, trousers and shirt. I took the extra bag of clothes so that I could go on a hike if I wanted. Then I ran topside and arrived just in time to board the extra liberty boat.

As soon as I got to town I went to the mission home, changed into the clothing that I had in the bag, and called up to ask Roseanne to come on a hike with me. She countered by inviting me to dinner first. By the time we had finished dinner, we decided, instead, to go to a move. The movie theater was not far from her house, so we walked to the movie. We passed the Waikiki Ward and the LDS Mission Home on the way. As we got in front of the Mission Home, she asked me if I were going to church in the morning. I said “Yes,” and I immediately thought of the invitation that Keith Taylor had given me. I asked her to excuse me for a minute. I went into the mission home and phoned Keith. The phone rang several times and I was just about to hang up and he answered. He hesitated when I asked him if I could stay with him, but he finally said, “Okay.” The reason Keith had hesitated having me come was because he had lost his big room and was now in a small room with just one single bed. He also told me that before I phoned, he was on his way to town and had forgotten something. He came back just as the phone was ringing.

Keith and I rose early on December 7, 1941. He taught a Sunday School class at a small branch of the LDS Church, which overlooked a small part of the entrance to Pearl Harbor. His class ended at 8:00 AM. When we came out of the building, we could hear explosions from far away. There were puffs of smoke in the air. Someone asked me what was going on. I replied that it must be army maneuvers of some sort, because the navy didn’t have anything scheduled for today. How dumb could I be? I had been so critical of our captain for not being vigilant, and now I was as bad as he. Army trucks and men were traveling in long lines on the road. An army guard kept our car from the highway until all of the army convoy had passed by. We were in President Jensen’s car and his radio was on, but all that we could hear was static, so he turned the radio off. When we arrived at the mission home, Keith went into the kitchen where the elders were talking and I went to the bedroom and changed into my suit. One of the elders came in where I was changing clothes and said, “Do you know that we are at war?” This elder was quite a gullible fellow who was the recipient of many pranks, and I assumed that Keith was pulling his leg. I said, “Yea.” He said, “Well, what are you going to do?” I said, I’m going to put my suit on and go to church.” I then said that Keith was just kidding him. He then said, “Well Keith may be kidding, but the radio announcers are not.” In the kitchen the elders were huddled around the radio and the announcer kept saying, “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor. All service men report to your units and all civilians stay off of the streets.” I threw my tie over my head, slipped on my shoes without tying them and ran out into the middle of the street. I commandeered the first car to come my way. It was a taxi and six other servicemen were in it. These town taxis were not allowed on the base, so he dropped us off at the Alexander Young Hotel, without collecting our fares, and proceeded out to find more service men. The next taxi took us to the naval base. The guard didn’t allow the taxi on the base. We had to get out of the taxi, identify ourselves at the gate and walk to our various locations on the Naval Base. It took a long time to get through he gate because our ID’s were checked more closely than they ever had been before. There were thirty or forty officers and men waiting to get into the base. There was a big long sheet of very black smoke out in the bay. As I ran to the officers boat landing I heard one sailor holler to another that the black smoke was coming from the Arizona, and that the Oklahoma was sunk. My heart sank with the ship. I was supposed to be on the ship with the 81 men in my division.

When I arrived at the Officer’s Club Landing, I looked over to where the Okie was berthed, and I saw a mast through the smoke. The Okie isn’t sunk after all! A motor launch came to the landing and the Coxswain announced that he would take all officers to their ships, so I boarded the launch. One of the officers was rip-roaring drunk. He kept saying or rather crying or sobbing, over and over again, “Why the dirty rotten little yellow sons of B’s!” We went to the right and passed the ship of the drunken officer. The ship’s Officer of the Deck refused to allow him to come aboard. He said that they had enough to cope with without having a hopeless drunk on their hands. So we had to endure the endless cries of the drunken officer. In the moments of stress, I had forgotten that the Okie was tied up to the USS Maryland. It was the mast of the Maryland which I had seen through the smoke. We passed by the Okie and indeed it was bottom up. As we passed by, in my mind’s eye, I could see the 81 men in the “C Division,” down in the depths of the sea, struggling for air and floundering in the dead air spaces. I didn’t know until later that there were no dead air spaces. Our super efficient new captain had left all the compartments open so that we would be ready for a possible inspection on Monday, December 8, 1941. Because of the compartments being open, the ship was sunk in 11 minutes.

A group of low-flying torpedo planes dropped three torpedoes into the port side of the Okie. One of these torpedoes went into the radio shack (my battle station) and exploded. A fourth torpedo followed in the wake of that one and exploded right in the radio shack. I reflected upon the events of December 6, 1941. If I hadn’t met Keith Taylor at the fireside, if I hadn’t listened to the promptings telling me to go ashore, if Ensign Stern’s duty officer had approved me to stand by for him, if Roseanne hadn’t asked me if I were going to church just as we passed the mission home, if Keith hadn’t forgotten something so that he had to return to where his phone was, if he had told me that he didn’t really have room for me now that he had lost his second bed, then I would have been aboard ship and would have gone to my battle station where two torpedoes exploded.

We lost all of our battleships in one fell swoop. Fortunately for us none of our aircraft carriers were in port. The carriers were scheduled to be in port, but for various reasons were not there. Our loss of manpower was very severe. The war was to be waged with aircraft and submarines. These old captains and admirals were forced into accepting air warfare, because their old battleships were now gone. These old battleships were restored and used later in the war to shell some of the Japanese islands. The number two, 2-gun turret was taken from the USS Oklahoma and installed on the USS Nevada. The number two, 2-gun turret was taken from the USS Arizona and also installed on the USS Nevada. These guns were fired by the USS Nevada against Iwo Jima and other islands. So the entire battleship force, which was destroyed at Pearl Harbor, managed to participate in some manner in the war against Japan.

My Grandfather, Gordon Elmer Douglass’ story was originally published December 5, 2006 in the Red Rock Reporter (Kanab, Utah). The article was written by my uncle Kent D. Douglass. I have borrowed heavily from my uncle’s story. Being that December 7, 2011 is the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I wanted to remember not just my grandfather, but all those who have served this greatest nation on earth in all wars from The Revolutionary War to Afghanistan. It is my prayer that God keep us free from tyrany and oppression and that great men rise up once again to make sacrifices that will benefit not just the United States, but all people of Earth.

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