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SF3 James Wire Part I: Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Tarawa
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Shipfitter 3rd Class James Wire served on the USS Tennessee during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Tarawa. It was his job to put out fires and do damage control on the ship. In this episode, he describes the chaos and destruction he witnessed.
Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, Wire talks about serving on the USS Missouri during the Invasion of Iwo Jima and the Battle of Okinawa.
To hear more from SF3 Wire, check out this video of him presenting to a college class.
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Today, we’ll hear from Shipfitter 3rd Class James Wire. In this first part of his interview, Wire describes the chaos of serving on the USS Tennessee during the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Tarawa.
SF3 James Wire:
My name is James Wire. It's spelled J-A-M-E-S. Then, initial R and W-I-R-E.
I was on the USS Tennessee at Pearl Harbor on December the 7th, 1941. The number of the ship is BB-43. I woke up at six o’clock in the morning, that was reveille. I ate breakfast about 7:15. About 7:50 or thereabouts, I went up to the top side, put on whites, working whites, went up top side, and just as I got up to the top of the hatch, about 7:55, a plane flew over only about 50 feet high. It was below the bridge, just went over our bow. I looked up and it had red meatballs on the wings, so I knew that it wasn't ours.
My general feeling was to dive for cover, because I realized that it was war. They weren't our planes. Usually, the planes had stars on them that was our planes and they landed at Ford Island right next to us. We were tied up at Ford Island. They landed there all the time, and sometimes they would come by and they'd drop a five pound bag of flour on the ship to simulate an attack.
Some of the fellas that were on deck, there were about over 100 men up there, but then the planes started strafing the wooden decks and the little splinters started walking right across the deck. They were trying to shoot all the men in white. Of course, they were easy to see by the pilots. They came over so low that you could see the grin on the pilot's face. Of course, we didn't have a gun. We were unarmed. We were not expecting a war at that time.
About that time they sounded general quarters, and I heard an explosion on the ship next to us, which was the USS West Virginia. It was a torpedo had blown up. They sounded general quarters. I went immediately to my battle station, which was on the third deck aft by turret three.
I arrived at my battle station within a couple of minutes from the time I saw the plane, and everything was locked up. The chief ship fitter in charge asked me to go up to the ship fitter shop. He had left the keys in the desk. So I ran up there, got the keys, got back to my battle station, and the first bomb landed on turret two. Shrapnel went right through the ship fitter shop, hit that desk and tore a hole in the deck right in front of the desk where I'd been.
Then, a couple of minutes later, another heavy explosion, a bomb, a 1900 pound bomb, hit turret three, about 35 feet from where I was. You could hear the metal against metal. Of course, the bomb disintegrated. It didn't burn, because there was powder all around the turret and it went right through a four-inch top of the turret, the armor. It killed five men and wounded about 32 others when it hit.
About that time a little bit later, the Arizona blew up right behind us, about 75 feet behind our stern. It blew up and it lifted my ship about four feet out of the water. Everybody that was standing up in the repair locker, there were about eight of us there. We found ourselves sitting on the steel deck, all at once. Our legs were knocked out from under us and we knew something big had happened. We had a fire in the store room down below, and I put on an apparatus, breathing apparatus, went down and put that fire out. It was a small fire. The smoke was pretty thick by that time and our ship was on fire and burning. The Arizona blew flaming oil all over our wooden deck, all the canvas cover that was on top of there, and it set us on fire. Right after that, they asked me to come up and man the hoses. I was a ship fitter third class and my duties were firefighting and damage control. I went aft and manned the two and a half inch holes with another fellow and we kept the fire away from our ship as best we could, because it was burning fiercely on the water. The oil, I guess from Arizona, was burning very rapidly and it burnt the paint off of our ship and set it on fire.
I manned the holes, until I got relieved. I think it was about an hour. By 10:00, we had the fire out on our ship and we were picking up swimmers from the Arizona that were in the water, some of them had their hair burned off and that was about the list of my days. We fought fire on the West Virginia next to us and put out the flames on their deck. Then, we manned the hose for about, oh, a couple of hours after that, to keep the burning oil away from us.
They had motor whale boats pulling the men out of the water and we pulled a couple of men up on deck that had been burnt, had been swimming in the burning oil. We took the holes and brushed the fire away from them. As they came up, we had a long boat hook and we pulled a couple up on deck and practically all the people that were on deck aft of the turret two of Arizona were saved. It was about 75 feet to the beach and some of them just dived over in the water and swam to the beach. When I was manning the hoses, we pulled a couple of men out of the water and all their hair was gone and burned off, because they had come up for air and the oil was burning, so it just singed their hair right off. I met a friend of mine who was on the Arizona and he was on deck and he got off and his hair was burned off and it never grew back. I saw him later at another station.
I looked and I saw the Arizona. It broke the back of the Arizona and sank the ship behind us. West Virginia was tied up with us and it sank down to the bottom. Up on the bow, I looked and I saw the Oklahoma was turned upside down. It looked real bad and it smelled real bad. Burning flesh was all around. It was one of the worst days of my life. I knew that we had to fight. I thank God that I came through alive. I knew we had to fight or die trying, to fight this war and come back from the damage that had been done to us.
Well, the thing of it is, your adrenaline kicks in and you can lift heavier weights and many heavier hoses than you could ordinarily. Two men can't hardly hold a two and a half inch hose with the fire pumps going at full blast, but we did it then at Pearl Harbor and half the time you couldn't see except see a little flame now and then. You kept the hoses going, because the flames were burning on the water towards your ship. If they're burning all around the stern of your ship, first, you fan the flames back and then you keep them from coming towards you. The wind was blowing towards us all the time. We were just fighting and fighting. Of course, we had whites on and the whites we had to throw away after Pearl Harbor. We had to throw our uniforms away. They were so black and covered with oil and smoke and so forth, that you couldn't even wash them. They were so dirty and so covered with oil. Everything you'd touch was black with soot and so forth. If you got near the rail or to go back and fight the fires, everything you touched was black. Is black and oily and smelled bad. All the bodies were burning. It's indescribable really. It's so horrible that you put it out of your mind afterwards, if you don't, you wind up going over the edge. Actually, your rage saves you in a battle. You get so pent-up and your adrenaline kicks in, I guess they call it, that you fight. Well, it's a battle to the death and they were machine-gunning us while we were manning the hoses. We just hoped that they didn't hit us. They fired and hit the deck behind us. We could see the splinter coming up behind us, but we kept fighting the fire. We saved Tennessee by putting a fire out, but I think it was close to 1/3 burnt of the ship.
My first thought was, well, this looked like the end of the world. It looked like the Japanese had caught us napping and it looked really bad, because they were shooting at us and we were sitting still and it's easy to hit a target that's not moving. They had a field day there. They just bombed and strafed, they were strafing anybody that got on top side. By that time, they had the machine guns going from the after mast and we had a five-inch gun, but they manned them about five minutes. Within 8:05, we were firing those planes and we knocked down several planes, and had an assist because several ships fired the same plane and blew them apart. I understand there was 29 planes destroyed that day that we helped knock down. I know that we got five planes. We assisted several more planes, we knocked down.
The second wave that came over were horizontal bombers. They were about 10,000 feet. We had five-inch 25 caliber guns going, by that time. We fired so many shells that it burnt the paint off of our five-inch anti-aircraft guns firing at those planes. They dropped their bombs, a lot of them went in the water. The Japanese turned around and ran. As quick as they could drop their bombs, they ran away. The second wave weren’t as accurate as the first wave. They caught us by surprise.
By the second wave, we had the ammunition lockers. We had busted the locks, because the keys were somewhere. The gunnery officer had the keys and he was ashore, so they knocked the locks off and opened the ammunition lockers that way. They were manned and ready by the time the second wave came, around 10:00, it might have been five minutes to 10:00, but it's around 10:00. It was about two hours later.
I understand they had 183 planes, or something of that sort, around there, so the sky was full of planes. When I went up to man the hoses, they were strafing and bombing the dry dock at that time. They blew up the USS Ward. I saw the explosion go up real big. The fire from the Arizona turned into black smoke. I think the oil busted the oil tanks and the oil tanks were burning. The ammunition had set fire to the oil and everything was burning and I couldn't see anything at times. I had to wait for the wind to shift, and I got covered with a suet fighting that fire from the fan tale, but I wasn't the only hose there. They had about four hoses, four two and a half inch hoses. We had the fire pumps going at full blast and they were very hard to hold a two and a half inch. I was on the nozzle and it was hard to hold. It was trying to whip you around.
All we saw was the Japanese planes, the air was full of them. You figure that over 100 planes attacked at Pearl Harbor. Then, they had 189 planes in the first wave. They sent about a dozen planes to Hickam Field to bomb the rows of bombers that were in rows. They just went up and down the rows and set those planes on fire and destroyed most of them. Also, the B-17s were coming in and the radar men mistook the Japanese for those B-17s. They thought it was a flock of B-17s coming in to land in Hickam Field.
The officer said, "Well, forget about it." But, of course, it was the Japanese coming in and that was one of the big mistakes. They had them on radar and they should have warned everybody, but the officer said that, "We're expecting the B-17s." The B-17s arrived and they were still bombing and strafing the airfield. They shot some of the B-17s down. They managed to land all the B-17s, but some of them were destroyed on the ground after they landed. They had guns, but they didn't have any ammunition to fire back at the Japanese, so they were handicapped in that way.
I had a hatred or a temper. My temper flared when I thought that they'd attacked there. Then looking at all the dead bodies and so forth floating around the ship, they were picking up bodies for about two days. I was angry and I wondered why the officers didn't warn us, why they didn't tell us about they had sunk a subMarine early that morning and that should have tipped the officers off and they should have told us to be ready, instead of letting us go until 8:00. The band was back after ready to raise the flag, they went ahead and raised the flag and then they ducked for cover, because they were being straightened by Japanese planes.
It was a real shock and it was very miserable at that time. The crew of the West Virginia came over. Some of them came over on the lines that were tied up to our ship, to the Tennessee. Some of them crawled over on the lines and we fed them. We fed all that came aboard, because they had lost all their belongings, all their clothes. I gave one man my blanket, because he didn't have a mattress or a blanket to sleep in, and they were sleeping on deck and so forth for a couple of days after the attack.
Some of the men were affected worse than others. One quarter master went over the edge. They had to take him down to the brig and lock him up for, because he had what you call the shell shocked, because he was on the bridge and saw the bomb hit the center gun on turret two, that was right above the ship fitter shop. This bomb blew up and it killed the captain of the West Virginia, Captain Bennion or something like that. The captain of the West Virginia was killed by the bomb that hit our center gun.
We had some 14-inch guns. We had three 14-inch guns in turret three. It hit the center gun right at the turret and it broke into pieces. Shrapnel went down through the wooden deck and the ship fitter shop was right down on the second deck. Shrapnel, big pieces, about big as your head, went down through the wooden deck, just like paper. Of course, the bomb was a 1,900 pounds, armor piercing bomb. I cleaned up after the bomb, because I was in the cleanup squad. I had to pick up the pieces of the bomb and so forth, and also the pieces of men and so forth. Some of them were little pieces. The bomb was three inches thick and just had a small powder charge in the middle, but it was armor piercing. Those were actually shells. It was made by Britain and sold as scrap to Japan for scrap iron. They had HM, and UK, and so forth on, they were sold as scrap. We sold the scrap that made those aircraft carriers that Japan used, those six aircraft carriers. I found out later, they sunk four of them at the Battle of Midway. Those same four carriers that had bombed Pearl Harbor were sunk in that big Battle of Midway. They had a little bit of a, we got even with them there.
I thought that the Japanese would probably have troop ships to invade after they knocked out the airfields. We heard over the radio that the Hickam Field was being attacked and all the airfields on the island of Oahu were being attacked at the same time. We figured that the Japanese would probably follow up with troop ships, so we were on our guard. The trouble is we were kind of trigger-happy that night. All the anti-aircraft guns were manned, and here five planes came in from the carrier, but we didn't get the word, so we started firing at them. Somehow we fired about five rounds at them and we knocked down one or two of our own planes, but somehow they didn't tell us that. We thought it was a night attack. By that time, all the lights were off. We maintained a darkened ship throughout that night. They finally got the word that they were our planes coming into land.
When they landed, the carriers sent more planes in. They were on their way. They knew they'd been attacked at Pearl Harbor and they should have had some kind of a signal, so that we wouldn't open fire on them. It was just a mistake. It was like friendly fire, but we knocked down several of our own planes and we were at general quarters all that night. We were watching for the Japanese to come back and we were ready for them.
My ship was so severely damaged that they took part of the crew off of the Tennessee at Bremerton, Washington and sent them to the Maryland, which was in San Francisco, and on the Maryland, I was in the invasion of Tarawa. We had the Marine detachment on there, it was around 150 men and they loaded them all into the boats. After we had bombarded Tarawa for about two days, we bombed, we shelled Tarawa. We thought we had knocked most of the guns out, but we launched the Marines in the invasion force and also they had some army troop ships.
Well, and HM Smith, the Marine General, was on the Maryland, where I was. They sent the Marines over, sent 150 over, and the boats brought back about 75 wounded and killed, and 75 of them got after the Japanese were killed or surrendered. I understand there were over 3,000 Japanese on that island to defend it and 60-some-odd surrendered. The rest of them fought to the death. They had to burn some of them out of the caves and so forth. Our planes went over and spotted our guns. When the planes came back, they landed real quick and we took them aboard the ship, because they were starting to sink. The Japanese had put the holes through the pontoons on our seaplanes and they were almost sinking by the time we got the hook and pulled them out of the water. We patched them up real quick and within a couple of hours they were back spotting again. They did that a couple of times that day. They'd go over and get full of holes. They'd shoot at the pontoons where the largest, luckily they didn't kill any of the pilots or down any of our planes. We had two planes spotting for us on the Maryland.
I watched them go in from the deck and I had the field glasses. We were allowed to go up on the bridge, because I'd stood bridge watches too. I looked at them through the glasses and the landing ships, LSTs and so forth, they were landing quite a ways out and I wonder why they didn't go into the beach. Then, I understood later they ran onto some coral reefs and they had to wade for about 100 yards, about 300 feet into the beach, and the Japanese were manning machine guns.
The Marines would kill the gunners and another Japanese would get there and man the guns. One Marine said they knocked six men off of one Japanese machine gun. He brought it back and showed us. The machine gun was about six feet long and it had air cool. The air fins were grazed by bullets aimed at the fella behind and they killed six gunners off of that same machine gun before they could capture it. They were that desperate. The Japanese were very desperate to hold Tarawa.
The Marines were firing and we were firing so much that they had a row of palm trees on the beach and all those palm trees were just stumps by the time they got through firing. The Marines had landed and they made a beachhead. But the worst thing about it, they had a reef that extended out about 100 yards and they couldn't go up on the sand. Before they ever got to the sandy beach, they had waded in deep water and they held their guns up. I'd watched them, they held their rifles up over their heads as they went in to keep them dry. Of course, the Japanese were shooting at them, because you can't very well fire a gun at them until you get up to where you can get your feet on the sand and lay down and draw a bead on them. But they've finally taken the island and I think it was a couple of days it took to wipe all the Japanese out and capture a few of them.
I saw several of our tanks, light tanks and so forth, they got up to the beach and the Japanese let them have it. The Marines were out sharpshooting, laying on the sand trying to get those guns that had fired at the tanks. The trouble is it was very hard to make it from that 100 yards, from the coral up to the beach. That's where a lot of men got killed, right there. I was looking through the long glass at the beach and saw it. I couldn't do anything about it.
We sent over three LSTs full of Marines and we got about two, or about half the Marines came back. The others were wounded and they sent them to the hospital ship we had. Laying off about 10 miles away was a hospital ship, so they took them over there, all the wounded. There were several hundred, I understand, got wounded at Tarawa and it was very bloody. But the worst thing was trying to land and establish a beachhead there.
That was SF3 James Wire. Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, Wire talks about serving on the USS Missouri during the Invasion of Iwo Jima and the Battle of Okinawa.
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