Oree Cunningham Weller
S2c on 7 Dec 1941
b. 16 Sep 1922 - d. 7 Sep 1993
Submitted by Russell J. McCurdy
Birth Place: Harris County, Texas - Death Place: Bellevue, King, Washington - Parents: Victor C & Evelyn
by Lieutenant Commander Oree C. Weller, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired)
Packed with lots of great history and information!
I first saw Pearl Harbor in July 1941 as part of a motley gang of ten apprentice seamen coming from boot camp at San Diego. We arrived on board the fleet oiler USS Neosho (AO-23) and made a clockwise circuit of Ford Island; to starboard was a massive gray ship. Four turrets of three 14-inch guns each were trained fore and aft. a polished tompion with a star in the center plugged each of the muzzles. Awnings of amazing whiteness stretched over the quarterdeck and forecastle. Boats and launches went to and fro amid sounds of whistles, bugle calls, and bells. In raised letters on the stern, both port and starboard, I saw "ARIZONA." In my mind then, were the words, "That's my ship." Instinctively, I felt a kinship that I have never lost. In her huge but gracefully shaped bulk was a beauty that was never equaled by any other Navy ship.
Upon berthing of the Neosho we boots went first to the fleet landing and then got a ride in a 50-foot motor launch with the letters "ARIZ" on its bow. We watched in awe as the boat crew gunned the engine and maneuvered out of the slip to head for the Arizona. In retrospect, I rather suspect that we were deliberately given a bit of a show of seamanship; even so, we were properly impressed. The coxswain had his white hat down upon his brow, a regulation two fingers above the bridge of his nose. The launch made a neat "two bell" landing ("engine back" and "engine stop") at the ship's port gangway.
A rag-tag lot we were as we went aboard. The fleet uniform of the day at that time was tropical undress white, which was low-cut oxford shoes, black socks, white shorts, skivvy shirts and white hat. We were in full undress white (with the usual boot camp tailoring), high-topped black shoes, and neckerchiefs. Boots we were. After negotiating the accommodation ladder to the port side of the quarterdeck, we were mustered in. The messenger on watch was delegated to show us to our berthing spaces.
My buddy and I were dropped off in an area devoid of anything that looked remotely habitable. We were standing looking at each other somewhat expectantly when the messenger returned. When we asked where our bunk was, he pointed to some hooks attached to the beams in the overhead and a railing installed on a near bulkhead. The hooks were for hanging our hammocks, and the railing was to support our seabags. The "bathroom" (we were still not completely indoctrinated on the nautical nomenclature) for the first three pay grades was the seaman's head forward on the main deck.
Cold tap water ran at the long sink and in a nearby cubicle. The tap water was both fresh and salt water and you soon found out which tap was which. A jacketed steam line was installed in the cubicle and was the means to heat water in your bucket.
Soon we were directed to the ship's store, where we bought galvanized steel buckets. Soon each of us went to go to the boatswain?s locker to get a brass nameplate with our name on it and have it riveted to the bucket. Next, the bucket had to be shined with bright work polish and steel wool. From then on, I lived with that bucket, bathed with that bucket, washed my clothes in that bucket, brushed my teeth and shaved with that bucket. And when I was done with any of the jobs, the bucket had better shine brightly before it was secured to the jackstay upon which the seabags hung.
Pending our final divisional assignment, we learned we were to be identified as the X division. We would take our meals with various of the ship's divisions and would find out which division immediately prior to the meal. As many prewar sailors remember, messing was done in division living spaces. So if we newcomers didn't find out where a particular division mess was in time, we missed that meal. Nobody told us where any other division was located; we were on our own. There was a method in this madness, however. We learned the ship and we learned that the traffic patterns were "up and forward on the starboard side" and "down and aft on the port side."
Of course, we stuck out like sore thumbs with our high-topped shoes and long white trousers. Those made us dead giveaways as boots, and we had to take the consequences. As a result we soon borrowed scissors, needle, and thread. The long whites became short whites, and a bribed ship's cobbler turned high-tops into low-cut oxfords. Our education was beginning. Years later, I was taught in a class for Navy instructors that one learns best by doing. We boots did exactly that.
I was assigned first to the 6th division, whose berthing spaces were shared with the 5-inch/51 caliber casemate broadside guns. It was here in the 6th division that I first began to appreciate that the ship existed primarily as a platform for the guns. amenities for the crew were always sandwiched in and were to not interfere with the guns. My own view was that the requirement was right, and nothing in the past 50 years has changed my mind. The ship comes first.
I was transferred after a time to N division, the home of the quartermasters. One would have thought that I was in hog heaven. Not on your life. I still didn't have a bunk; I swung my hammock from billet hooks in the overhead and stowed my seabag on a jackstay with my shined bucket laced to it. The billet hooks descended into the crew compartment from the overhead frames; a pair was assigned to each man with a hammock. The longer of the two in a pair accommodated the foot of a hammock; the shorter the head. At the call of "Hammocks," around 1900 in the evening, we were permitted to take our hammocks from stowage (called "nettings") and rig them for sleeping.
Following the chaplain's prayer, we could sack in. Lights went off at 2100, and we could sleep uninterrupted until reveille.
Getting up in the morning was often another thing. While squawk box was available and used for announcements, passing the word for reveille was the province of the boatswain's mate. It was always difficult to be roused from a sound sleep at the ungodly hour of 0530. The strident call, "All hands on deck, all hands arise, all hands ready to turn to" echoed through the crew spaces. Woe to those who failed to heed. The first time a man was called, the second time the master-at-arms swung a bat (not unlike a cricket bat) and swatted the hammock in the general region of a man's kidneys. The second time someone had to be called twice, the MAA flipped his hammock over and dumped him on the deck, some six or seven feet down. The third time someone needed a repeat call the MAA sliced his foot lashings.
Each of us need those foot lashings to lash up the hammock and stow it in the nettings. Thus the offender went quickly down to the boatswain's locker and got two fathoms of half-inch line. Those two fathoms cost him two hours of extra duty, but no matter now; he had a bigger problem. Quickly, he replaced the slashed foot lashings. He made an eye splice, trimmed off all of the "Irish pennants," and seized the splice end neatly. Now he was ready to lash hammock and stow it properly. If the reluctant riser made it prior to 0700 he was lucky; if not, he was faced with two more hours of extra duty. All of us soon learned to get up on time.
Each Friday was set aside for field day, a thorough scrubbing of everything in sight in preparation for the Saturday morning captain's inspection. When I was transferred into the N division, I was assigned to the navigator's yeoman. I could type fairly well and the yeoman saw a good chance to foist off all the "dog-work" such as typing up the smooth deck log each day and running around the ship getting the signatures of the various officers of the deck who had been on watch the previous day.
The navigator's office was on the boat deck immediately forward of the smokestack. Insofar as cleanliness was concerned, the navigator's yeoman was even more meticulous than the 6th division boatswain's mate. The file drawers had to be removed from the fixed desk and the standing four-drawer file and the drawer cavities thoroughly scrubbed.
The dogs on the battle ports had to be polished and steel wool used to shine the grooves in the dog threads. The desk, which was covered with green linoleum, had to be polished to a high sheen. The deck, covered in red linoleum, had to be scrubbed and waxed and shined with a heavy bristle brush on a long handle. This implement weighed about ten pounds, and swinging it to and fro to bring out the wax shine was called "swinging the admiral." The face plated of the light switch had to be buffed to a mirror sheen with Wiz polish and a soft cloth.
You had to be thorough, for if you got a demerit you could forget liberty that Saturday following the inspection.
One Friday that I recall, I was particularly thorough. The file drawers were removed and I painted the cavities white with paint cadged from the paint locker. A steam line that ran through the overhead of the office required my standing on the desk to wipe it clean. The battle port dogs never shone as brightly. I repainted the solid pane of the battle port with fresh gray paint. The office was immaculate, and I was ready for the inspection party. The following morning I was standing stiffly at attention when the commanding officer, Captain Franklin Van Valkenburg, strode smartly up the boat deck with an entourage that included his yeoman, the first lieutenant, and the navigator.
Saluting smartly, I reported the navigator's office ready for inspection. Nodding briefly, the captain entered. Looking around briefly, he jumped up on the desk and ran his white glove the length of the steam pipe. It came away clean, and I was barely able to hide the smirk of supreme satisfaction. He examined the file drawer cavities and complimented the paint job. One more success like that and I would be in need of a new jumper to contain my swelling chest. Pausing for a moment, and appearing to be ready to depart, the Captain noted the switch for the small oscillating fan mounted on the bulkhead above the door. He reached over and switched the fan off. When the blades spun to a stop, he saw a thick fringe of greasy dust on the leading edge of each dirty and corrosion-covered brass blade. The yeoman quickly noted the discrepancy, and I forgot about liberty.
Liberty in Honolulu in those days of the summer of 1941 was fair, but not all that attractive. Once you had seen Waikiki, and paraded up and down Hotel Street, all that was left was North Beretania Street. Even that could pall in time. The Army-Navy YMCA was at one end of Hotel Street, and Wo-Fat's bar was at the other. In between was a m?nge of bars, tattoo parlors, naval tailors, locker clubs and assorted other establishments. On any given day, Hotel Street was filled with Navy white, interspersed with spots of Army olive drab and Marine green. The ebb and flow of the crowds was as predictable as the waves at Waikiki. Pockets of white hats would be gathered at the entrance to a tailor shop next to the Alexander Young Hotel. An Asian girl, yelling "Hot Doggie Doggie!" would be dispensing hot dogs at ten cents a crack. Down the street and in an alley was ten-cent beer, and 25-cent hard liquor drinks could be had at the Log Cabin.
Around the corner from Wo-Fat's were the brothels. Wo-Fat's provided the liquid courage for the younger sailors to make this necessary rite of passage to become full-fledged sailors of the United States Fleet. The most famous among these establishments was the New Senator Hotel; all of these places catered to the more casual physical wants of the more experienced and obviously older sailors of the fleet.
The fee was $3.00 and the experience was almost guaranteed to last less than five minutes. The girls were professionals sent out from the mainland and could "turn a trick" in a flat three minutes. Many of them worked four rooms simultaneously. In one room the "customer" would be undressing, in the second room another man would be in the bed, in the third room one would be re-dressing, and in the fourth the maid would be tidying up and laying out fresh towels.
In those months prior to 7 December we went on condition watches while under way. At some point during each deployment we exercised at general quarters. In October we were engaged in exercises as part of the Battleship Division One when the Oklahoma (BB-37) plunged her bow into the port side of the Arizona. The garbage bins were hung there and when the Oklahoma hit, there was garbage all over the place. She had a ram-shaped bow that did a neat job of slicing Arizona's hull open below the waterline. The damaged compartments were quickly sealed off and a collision mat positioned over the hole in the outside hull. One would have thought that we would have been dispatched immediately to the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard for repairs. Instead we were directed to remain and operate for another three days. When we were released and headed for port, the dry dock at the head of Ten-Ten Dock was open and ready for us. We were repaired quickly. Somebody knew something but wasn't telling us.
We deployed to sea for the last time, as it developed, on Monday, 1 December. We exercised, as usual, at various drills and saw nothing untoward, nor were the rumors any more rampant than usual. We did carry, however, anti-aircraft ammunition in the ready boxes at each gun mount during that deployment. The ammunition was struck below to the magazines as we entered port on the following Friday, 5 December. As usual, we held field day. The decks were holystoned, the bright work polished, including the dogs on the hatches to the ammunition ready lockers. I even shined the blades of my fan and wiped down my steam pipe. A little paint touch-up here and there, and I was ready. Since my section had the duty on Friday, I busied myself getting my inspection uniform ready, including a spit shine on my shoes. Satisfied, I went to the movies that night on the fantail.
Following breakfast on Saturday, we prepared for inspection. I checked the navigator's office thoroughly. I heard a strange noise and looked up. Coming through the overhead was a spinning drill bit that was dislodging crumbs of the cork lining of the overhead. To my horror, after the drill was withdrawn, red-lead paint began to drip steadily onto the desk. I threw a cloth rag on the desk to catch the drippings and dashed up to the signal bridge above the office. Crews from the Vestal (AR-4), a repair ship that was moored alongside, had come aboard and were building a shack-like compartment on the after end of the signal bridge.
It was intended to house radar equipment that would be installed during our upcoming overhaul on the West Coast. I raised as much of a ruckus as I could and pleaded with the workers to hold off the red lead until after the inspection. Repair ship workers were always amenable to knocking off work and agreed. I ran back below, cleaned up the mess, gave the desktop another quick polishing, and was ready for the skipper. I got a passing mark and was rewarded with my liberty card. While ashore I had a hamburger, did some Christmas shopping, had a few beers, and wandered here and there. When I eventually got back aboard ship, I went below and rigged my hammock for the night.
Sunday morning was clear and bright with few, if any clouds; there was little or no breeze. Since mail had arrived from the States the day before, I quickly finished breakfast in our below decks compartment and went up to the navigator's office. I had just started to read the first of two letters when I heard the air-raid alarm. "What the devil?" I thought and went out onto the boat deck.
Suddenly, from over the submarine base diving tower and flying very low above the intervening water, a plane zoomed over the Nevada, which was moored at quays astern of us. The plane was so low that I could see the pilot's head above the red circle of the rising sun painted on the fuselage. Someone called, "Hey, it's the real thing; it's the Japs." We soon heard the general quarters alarm, and all hands scrambled toward their battle stations. Bombs and torpedoes began to drop. I went back to the navigator's office and secured the battle ports, then headed for the mainmast.
I climbed the port-leg ladder of the tripod mast. I reached the searchlight platform as the first bombs began to hit the Arizona. I was somewhat numbed by the explosions. Instinctively, I guess, I continued up to the secondary battery control, which was the control center for the 5-inch broadside guns. In this action, they were useless since there were no enemy ships to fire at. I donned my sound-powered phones and attempted to contact the bridge or the conning tower.
About this time the whole forward part of the ship exploded. The concussion threw all of us, some seven or eight marines and myself, to the deck. The mainmast vibrated as though undergoing an earthquake. Flames burst through the smoke as the ammunition in the magazines continued to explode and fuel oil from ruptured tanks ignited. The noise of the ammunition explosions and the fuel fires was deafening. I continued to try to make contact with the bridge or any other stations on my phone circuit with no success. There was no way to tell anyone that we were "out of business" in the mainmast and no way to get permission to leave our station. Since it was obvious that we could do nothing where we were, we decided to go below. There was no consensus decision; each of us decided individually. I carefully removed my head phones, disconnected the phone wire from the jack, coiled the wire, stowed the phone and headset in the proper stowage box and began to descend.
When we emerged from the boxy structure at the top of the mainmast and onto the platform that led to the mast's supporting legs, we were immediately confronted with the devastation forward. As I stared around in awe at the destruction, I noticed the smokestack. My cleaning station included a portion of the stack just outside the navigator's office. My first thought was "My God, we're going to have to scrape and paint it." There have been persistent rumors that the Japanese dropped a bomb down the stack. However, there were gratings across the stack throat that were subsequently found undamaged. There was no bomb down the stack.
I descended to the boat deck and found everything in flames, then jumped to the starboard quarterdeck. Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua, the ship's first lieutenant, was there and some men were trying to extinguish some of the fires with little success. At one point, we had to take cover beneath the overhang of number three turret to escape machine-gun strafing. There were many men, some burned beyond recognition, lying on the quarterdeck. We tried to make them as comfortable as possible, which wasn't much.
One of those shipmates was Charles Brittan, a fellow boot camp sailor with whom I had traveled from San Pedro to Pearl. His eyes were burned and he could neither see nor speak. I recognized him only because of a small tattoo, no larger than a 50-cent piece, on his right shoulder; it was a picture of a bird in flight. He was burned all over his body so severely that he died before he could be put aboard the motor launch from the hospital ship Solace (AH-5), which was by now alongside on the starboard quarter.
We tried to remove the cork life rafts that were hanging from the barbettes of turrets three and four. The hole pins were tightly in place and frozen from removal by coat after coat of peacetime paint. A 50-foot motor launch from the Solace was tied up to our starboard quarter, and pharmacist's mates were busily loading the burned and wounded men into the launch.
With no water pressure, no way to fight the ship, no useable life rafts, and not knowing the conditions below decks, we concluded that there was little reason to remain. I followed the order from the turret three officer, Ensign Jim Miller, to abandon ship. I removed my shoes and socks and placed them together. With my white hat lying on top of them, I carefully slid them beneath an ammunition ready box and then I went over the starboard side and into the fuel-covered water.
My intention was to swim to the officer's club landing on Ford Island, some 150 yards away. I swam underwater for awhile, until I had to come up for air. When I came to the surface and saw the rapidly approaching flames from the burning oil, I gulped a lungful of air and went down again. I swam as long as I could in the direction that I hoped led to the O-club dock, but by now I was really afraid that I wasn't going to make it.
The second time I came up, I stayed up. The thick layer of fuel oil made swimming difficult and the difference in my swimming speed and that of the advancing flames was rapidly approaching zero. I was losing ground. I happened to look to my right side; a white launch, the hull of which was covered with oil, was approaching me. It was another Solace 50-foot launch, and as it slowly swung by me, someone extended a boat hook. I grabbed it and hung on while several hands pulled me aboard. The coxswain offered me the sleeve of his white jumper to wipe the oil from my mouth and another launch crewman, a pharmacist's mate, handed me a wad of gauze for my eyes. I wasn't hurt or burned; I was just covered with fuel oil from head to foot. I was scared, and I was numb. Obviously, however, I was relieved. I sat on the thwart of the launch and breathed heavily. I had been saved on a day when many others were not.
With Pearl Harbor, an era in the Navy came to an end. The Navy and Navy life would never be the same. The pomp and ceremony, the casual life beneath white awnings on the quarterdeck, the bugle calls and boatswain's calls for passing orders, the striking of the bells of the watch - all were either gone or much less important after that one day in December. There is still some pomp, and now and then you can find a boatswain's mate who knows how to make a fancy line work and "McNamara's lace," but they are few and far between. Much is the loss of this fine period when a Navy man was a sailor man first and a technician second.