- Category: USS Arizona Survivor Stories
- Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 November 2015 23:13
- Published: Thursday, 22 May 2003 00:00
Harlan Carl Christiansen
Apprentice Seaman on 7 December 1941
As the youngest survivor of the bombing and sinking of the USS Arizona, Kansan Carl Christiansen recounts his escape from the inferno. by Jan Landon - The Topeka Capital-Journal
Carl Christiansen saw his older brother for the last time right before all hell broke loose and the world changed forever.
The brothers, Carl and Edward Lee Christiansen, were both in the Navy and stationed on the USS Arizona.
The morning was clear on Dec. 7, 1941, in Pearl Harbor. The brothers talked about going ashore to take a photograph to send to their mother in Columbus, in far southeast Kansas.
Edward -- whom the family with nine kids nicknamed "Sonny" -- told his brother Carl, nicknamed "Buddy," that he had to run and get something from his quarters.
Buddy never saw Sonny again.
At 8:10 a.m., an armor-piercing bomb slammed through the deck of the USS Arizona, according to the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii. The ship exploded when her forward ammunition magazine was hit.
The ship sank in fewer than nine minutes. Along with Sonny Christiansen, 1,177 sailors died.
Sonny's body was never found. Carl Christiansen believes his brother died when the bomb hit.
"Time goes real fast," Christiansen said about recalling surviving the bombing. "When the ship blew up, we didn't know it had been damaged that bad. We couldn't find a way out."
Christiansen and other sailors found a hatch between two powder magazines. The ladder went straight up. He was the second man up.
But still they hadn't reached the safety of the deck. Another sailor used a wrench to take the bolts off a plate that held a gun on deck. The sailors decided to throw a life raft into the water. The idea was to hang on to it and make their way to shore.
"We couldn't get through that oil and water," he recalled. They turned back.
The ship had sunk enough that the sailors were able to pull themselves back onto the ship.
A "captain's gig" came around the front of the ship and picked them up. Delivered to an air raid shelter, Christiansen had only minor injuries but passed out. The next day he woke up in the hospital.
"I tried to find my brother," he said. "I couldn't see anything that had his name."
Christiansen didn't get long to look. Before he could find any information, he was put on a cruiser, the Chester. The Chester also suffered losses when on Feb. 1 or 2 it was hit with a 500-pound bomb. The cruiser headed home to Pearl Harbor.
Christiansen ended up in San Francisco later in February 1942. He found his parents waiting there. They hugged Buddy hard. Both of them, he said.
The visit lasted about an hour and a half.
His parents had found out about Sonny's death on Jan. 17, 1942. It was February before Buddy knew for sure his older brother was gone.
Christiansen, who had just turned 19 when he boarded the Arizona, was the youngest survivor of the attack.
Christiansen was born in Jewell County in western Kansas, but he grew up in Columbus.
"I had a good childhood," he said, speaking about working as a curb hop boy at an all-night cafe at the age of 12 and learning about being a short-order cook.
He didn't finish high school, and after a year at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Nebraska, he found himself back home working with his father.
He hadn't seen his older brother, Edward, in three years. His mother was upset because her father had told her that she would never see Sonny again.
Christiansen went to work the next day and told his father he was quitting. And then he drove to Joplin and enlisted in the Navy on the USS Arizona.
He wanted to see his brother again.
Christiansen doesn't remember exactly when he arrived at Pearl Harbor, but the 79-year-old remembered that boot camp was hell.
He tends to have a mouth on him, he said. That can get you in trouble in boot camp.
His brother was a baker on the Arizona.
"He was waiting for me," Christiansen said. "When I got aboard the ship, he was there."
Those first few days weren't easy for the younger brother. A wave nearly washed him off the ship, and he ran afoul of a bosun's mate.
Sitting at the head of the table, the bosun's mate said he would sure like another piece of that cherry pie. There were never seconds on dessert on the Arizona, but Christiansen piped up like he always did and said, "I'll go get you another piece."
The bosun's mate didn't yell at Christiansen. The bosun's mate was persuaded to give Christiansen a chance. He hadn't mentioned to the bosun's mate that his brother was a baker on the ship.
When he found Sonny, his brother wouldn't let him have a piece of pie, and the brothers got into an argument. An officer intervened, and Buddy Christiansen returned to table with an entire cherry pie.
There are other good memories of the couple of days Christiansen was on the Arizona. Like the cards he and Sonny sent home to their mother for Thanksgiving. When his mother died years later, Christiansen found the cards still tucked together in the envelope.
He found the telegram that told his parents he was injured, and the one telling them that his brother was dead.
Keeping Memories Alive
Christiansen, who worked for 36 years as the Columbus chief of police, has a room in his house dedicated to Pearl Harbor and his fallen brother.
He and his wife, Lenora, have a son, two daughters and four grandkids. He served six years in the Navy before coming home.
Sonny would be proud of him, he believes. He hands out pens that say, "Carl Christiansen, Columbus, Kansas, Youngest Survivor, Brother Entombed, USS. Arizona -- Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, 60th Anniversary."
He has visited the Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, but he doesn't plan to return for this year's 60th anniversary. Christiansen has been battling cancer for 12 years -- people tell him he's too mean to die.
Christiansen has talked to lots of school groups about Pearl Harbor. But it wasn't until just a few years ago that anyone showed much interest in learning about Pearl Harbor, he said.
"The kids want to know," he said. "They've heard a lot about it."
Christiansen has been featured on NBC and CNN, and he has visitors to his home who want to know.
It is difficult for him to believe that it has been 60 years since his ship sank under him and his brother died.
"Time just goes so fast," he said. "I wake up and the sun is shining and it's another day already."
Christiansen was watching more news about Afghanistan when he spoke about his Pearl Harbor experiences.
There are differences between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attack on Sept. 11 that killed thousands of Americans.
"The difference was at Pearl harbor we knew who did it," Christiansen said. "In New York, for the thousands of people from all those different countries, and they didn't know who did it."
He said he has told the groups he speaks to for several years that America would be attacked again. Intuition, he said. He just didn't know it would be so soon.
Information researched and compiled by I. B. Nease and N. A. Nease and provided on USSARIZONA.ORG free of charge.
May not be reprinted in any form, other than educational use, without prior written permission of the author.