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Belmont Club

Jonah at Pearl Harbor

December 7th, 2013 - 10:47 am

Some capsized battleships at Pearl Harbor still had men trapped inside their hulls. Stephen Bower Young wrote a book titled Trapped at Pearl Harbor, detailing the rescue of 32 sailors from the battleship Oklahoma. One survivor, Robert D. West, died aged 82 in 2002.

He had been trapped in utter darkness for more than 30 hours, and the fear of it never wholly left him. His daughters wondered for years why the veteran always slept with a small light on to the end of his days. Later they understood: “They had been trapped in pitch darkness, and I think that never totally left him,” according to West’s daughter, Diane.

West and several sailors scrambled around the steel hull as it flipped over and found themselves in a compartment with a foot of air above their heads. They dove out of that enclosure and made their way upward — toward the bottom of the ship where they waited, banging with wrenches on the bulkhead to signal they were alive.

After hours of repeated pounding, he finally heard an answer.

Rescue workers, who had begun cutting through the ship’s double bottom the morning of the attack, were systematically working their way through the bowels of the capsized vessel searching for survivors.

As water began lapping at the entombed sailors’ feet, the rescuers started cutting a hole just above where West and another sailor sat.

The five weakened, oil-soaked sailors were lifted out and guided through an escape route. At 2 p.m., the day after the attack, they finally saw daylight.

But if 7 decades is too far a span in time to recover the experience, the Pearl Harbor ordeal was re-endured a few months ago by by Harrison Okene, the Nigerian cook on an oil company tugboat that was capsized by a huge wave in the Atlantic ocean. It lay upended on the bottom a hundred feet below the surface, where Okene was trapped in an airpocket, listening to fish eat his dead shipmates, subsisting on Coca-cola.

There he waited in darkness for three days until salvage divers sent to recover the bodies found him. Whereas the World War 2 generation did not have body cameras, today’s divers do.  So we have the actual underwater video of his rescue.

One cannot help but wonder how many sailors have met the fate of West and Okene without the experience of rescue. What’s it like to wait entombed, alone, at the literal bottom of the ocean? Okene, like West, was similarly marked. Relatives have said that he awakes at night afraid terrified he is falling, sinking into depths.

We know from his own testimony that he had to fan the flames of hope alive.

According to his interview with the Nation: “I started calling on the name of God. … I started reminiscing on the verses I read before I slept. I read the Bible from Psalm 54 to 92. My wife had sent me the verses to read that night when she called me before I went to bed.”

He survived off just one bottle of Coke, all he had to sustain him during the trauma.

Okene really thought he was going to die, he told the Nation, when he heard the sound of a boat engine and anchor dropping, but failed to get the attention of rescuers. He figured, given the size of the boat, that it would take a miracle for a diver to locate him. So he waded across the cabin, stripped the wall down to its steel body, then knocked on it with a hammer.

But “I heard them moving away. They were far away from where I was.”

And then the diver came and Harrison was saved.

Men returned from the darkness are sometimes puzzled by the mystery of their own survival. In the 1993 movie Fearless, a plane crash survivor finds himself unable to re-enter into the normal world again, but is compelled to continuously ask himself: is he really alive? And can he really die?

Having your life nearly taken from you and then unexpectedly returned emphasizes not only the uncertainty of death, but the capriciousness of life. Before any of us die, we are first alive.  And why we live is really as big a mystery as the puzzle of death.  We are already on the other side of a great unknowable. The question is, what do we do with it?

December 7, 1941 was the day that killed thousands. It was also the moment that gave Robert West the chance to live 61 more years. Herman Melville in Moby Dick uses the story of Jonah as a metaphor for the need to go on.

As we have seen, God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along ‘into the midst of the seas,’ where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and ‘the weeds were wrapped about his head,’ and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet–’out of the belly of hell’–when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and ‘vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;’ when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten–his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean–Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding.

To remember Pearl Harbor is to recall the need to go on. To emerge from the belly of the whale means a new mission is upon us. Life, while we live, is our duty and our curse. There will be time enough to die.

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Top Rated Comments   
"Every death is a world lost."

Tennyson argued that there was a universe in a single flower. There's a lot to that. If I had the gift of poetry to match his "flower in a crannied wall" with a poem starting "oh kitty in a cardboard box", I would, but the Muses have never been with me. Still let me observe that if every man is a world, and every flower a universe, the argument for transcendence in its simplest form simply amounts to the notion that that reality has a backend.

If as some have argued, the universe is a computer, why should it necessarily operate without storage? Why should God, or physics or nature, generate worlds of information only to trash it? To believe that is as good as to believe the opposite. There are no advantages to arguing that we are but a moment's cache expiring in a session which has no memory of itself.

The idea of causality itself suggests that information is preserved in some sense. At least it is no harder to believe that we are consequential than to maintain that we are not.

So we do our part in the reasonable belief that what we do matters. As Cardinal Newman put it, "therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I will leave my Tennyson for Walt on the last thread.

Every death is a world lost. My deepest regret is that I was never able to get my father to commit his memories to a more permanent record. Think of what he knew. Born in America when the battle of Adrianople was waging during the Second Balkan War of 1912 to a father who had escaped Czarist Russia he lived to see more changes than maybe all of humanity had seen before his time. He knew what was his legacy from the Old World and he knew the greatest evils and hopes that came from the Depression to War to prosperity to this sad new millennium. All his memories, of his family of the men he served with and their triumphs and petty failures, the great and the bad that he had met, and Zelig like he met so many, all are gone now.

When Churchill warned the British of the folly of disarmament as the dictators gained strength it took four years to physically build a Navy and equip an Air Force and Army after Parliament gave the OK. Today even with the single minded devotion of all of America's resources and invoking full mobilization it would take over ten years. It is simply physically impossible to build a modern capital ship faster than that.

In WW-II we were fortunate that FDR had started rebuilding the Navy earlier as a USW (Steel Workers) jobs program. Today's Democrats would rather see the money burnt or spent on Haitian home health care workers in the SEIU.

We are alone trapped on this Earth at this time. There is no external rescuer that will cut the sky open so that we can see the dawn. While we live we are here.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Just posted this on the previous thread, but it belongs here.

December 7, 1941. Seventy-two years ago. I was twelve, and vividly remember lying on the living room floor on the following morning, reading the morning paper. I still see the pictures; smoke, basket masts, water lapping at the base of the turrets, small boats tiny among the sunk and burning battleships. There are not many of us left who were alive on that day, not many of us left who remember.


Guts and valor are words not usually associated with inanimate objects, but ships are not inanimate objects. Ships are live, living things. Ships, as well as men, can be tough and resilient. Such were the ships of Battleship Row.

0755 SUNDAY, 7 DECEMBER 1941

A quiet, peacetime Sunday morning. Seven battleships swung gently at their moorings; Maryland, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, Arizona, Nevada and California. Pacific Fleet flagship Pennsylvania was in drydock. When the attack came, half their crews were ashore, and most of the officers. None had steam up, for it was Sunday, and all was at peace. Except Nevada. Nevada had steam. Nevada could move. At the height of the attack, with burning and exploding ships all around her, already severely hurt by a torpedo to her port side, Nevada, under Lt. Commander Francis J. Thomas, senior officer aboard, broke out her big battle ensign and stood down the channel, heading for the open sea. Sailors on the burning ships cheered and threw their caps in the air, but Nevada’s gallant sortie was short lived. Five Japanese dive bombers laid her low, beaching her.

The battleships were ultimately raised and rebuilt, those that were salvageable. They rejoined the fleet, but the war had passed them by. It was a carrier war now, and the World War 1 era battleships were too slow, could not keep up with the fast carriers. They were relegated to fire support, and accompanied the Marines in their march across the Pacific, bombarding the beaches, their 14 and 16 inch guns trained on palm trees instead of dreadnoughts, declared unfit to do the job for which they were built. Until Surigao.

SURIGAO STRAIT, 0351 TO 0409, 25 OCTOBER 1944

Vice Admiral Nishimura, with a force of battleships, cruisers and destroyers, came steadily down the strait, headed for the Leyte beaches and the soft-skinned, vulnerable transports, still loaded with troops. Standing across his path was Admiral Oldendorf, and six old fire support battleships, all but Mississippi on Battleship Row that Sunday morning in December. The other five were California, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Oldendorf put his weary old battleships in line ahead, a Battle Line, as battleships had fought since the 17th century, and waited for Nishimura. At 0351 the big guns lit the sky. Oldendorf brought his big ships across the Japanese front, crossing the T, the dream of every admiral down the centuries, doing to the Japanese what Togo had done to the Russians at Tsushima nearly forty years earlier. The Japanese fought back, but when Nishimura turned away his battleships were gone, along with most of his heavy cruisers.

Surigao was the last battleship to battleship action of WWII, and very likely the last big gun surface action battleship fight the world is likely to see, and it was fought by ships that had been sunk at Pearl Harbor and returned to life. Ships, like men, can be judged by their deeds, and some, like the ships of Battleship Row, by their sheer stubbornness, their refusal easily to die. Ships, like men, are alive, and though it took the ships of Battleship Row almost three years, they gained their revenge in the only way they knew how. With their guns.

Torn by bombs, wracked by fire
They settled slowly to the harbor floor
Breathing their last, or so some thought
But not they
Rising, they joined their kind
Who scorned them now
As the young scorn the old
The slow
They did their job
Plodding the vastness of the central sea
Island to island
A supporting cast
Gaining no praise
No, that was for the young
The swift
The carriers
That blessed night
When called upon to be themselves
They were
Themselves and more

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (42)
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I remember reading about some sailors at Pearl Who were trapped and were told (by Morse code tapping) that they could not be rescued. They had emergency lanterns and a sailor tapped back - "we are having a hell of an Acey-Deucey game".

RIP shipmates.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Here is another guy who remembers the story:

"Not on Enterprise, as other posts correctly state, but I have a faint memory of the card game story from some WW2 magazine article. When word was sent down that rescue was unlikely, one of the trapped sailors replied “OK, we have a helluva acey-deucey game going on down here”. I think it was from early in the war, and may have been from the Oklahoma, capsized at Pearl Harbor."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Video of the Day

The Candy Bomber
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
OT: Things getting a bit more squirrelly in East China Sea.

S. Korea announces air zone expansion to counter Chinese claims

SEOUL, Dec. 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea announced a new air defense zone on Sunday to counter China's unilateral decision to expand its own, bolstering its sovereignty over a reef off the south coast and other islands around the Korean Peninsula.

The new air defense and identification zone was designed to have its southern boundary match the country's broader flight information region (FIR), and includes airspace over the South-controlled reef of Ieodo, the defense ministry said.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Several Enterprise planes arrived at Pearl Harbor during the battle. The luck of the storm....
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
> ALBANY, NY - A New York-built American fighter that's one of the few
> remaining still-airworthy planes to survive the Japanese attack on Pearl
> Harbor is being donated to a Massachusetts-based organization that flies
> World War II aircraft at living history events across the nation.
> Robert Collings, executive director of the Stow, Massachusetts-based
> Collings Foundation, said that the purchase of the Curtiss P-40B Warhawk
> from an aviation museum in England was completed this week. The plane will
> be disassembled and shipped to the United States, where it eventually will
> fly over Buffalo and other cities, with plans to participate in the 75th
> anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in 2016, he said.
> "The history that comes with it is pretty special," Collings said Friday,
> the day before the 72nd anniversary of the surprise attack in Hawaii that
> launched the U.S. into the Second World War. "It was obvious that we needed
> to get this airplane back to America."
> Collings said a sponsor who wishes to remain anonymous bought the plane for
> several million dollars from The Fighter Collection in Duxford, England. He
> said the person who bought the warplane will donate the aircraft to the
> Collings Foundation, bringing its collection of World War II aircraft to a
> dozen, including a B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator, both bombers.
> The Warhawk heading back to the U.S. came off the assembly line at the
> Curtiss Aircraft Co. plant in Buffalo in early 1941. Later that year, it was
> undergoing repairs in a hangar at Wheeler Field on Oahu when waves of
> Japanese warplanes attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
> While more than 300 other U.S. planes were destroyed or damaged during the
> attack, the P-40B escaped unscathed.
> But seven weeks after the attack, the plane crashed into a mountain on Oahu,
> killing the pilot. His body was recovered but the wreckage was left at the
> remote crash site. In the 1980s, a California warplane restoration group
> recovered the wreck and began working on the P-40B, rebuilding it with parts
> salvaged from two similar aircraft. The plane was flying again by 2004, soon
> after being acquired by The Fighter Collection.
> Collings said the plane was purchased from the English museum for "several
> million dollars" but wouldn't divulge the sale price or who the sponsor is.
> He said only a handful of P-40Bs exist, including one owned by Microsoft
> founder Paul Allen. Curtiss produced nearly 14,000 P-40s at its Buffalo
> plant from 1939-44. It was a workhorse for American and Allied air forces
> early in the war, and it was the same plane flown by the famed Flying
> Tigers, the name given to the American squadron that fought for China
> against Japan before American entered the war.
> The only other Pearl Harbor survivor still flying is a Grumman J2F-4 Duck, a
> privately owned, float-equipped biplane based in Kenosha, Wisconsin,
> according to vintage warplane experts. The few other surviving aircraft,
> such as the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Sikorsky JRS-1
> amphibious search plane, are no longer airworthy.
> "It's pretty important in terms of the rarity of that particular airplane,"
> Jeremy Kinney, a Smithsonian aviation curator, said of the foundation's
> P-40B and its Pearl Harbor connection. "We don't even have one."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Collings foundation visits Hyannis airport every few years. They bring their B-24 and B-17; I have several pictures and some video I took as a walk-around for future reference for model building. Last year they also brought a P-51C. The C, which I didn't know existed, was a field modified B, that had a second seat aft of the pilot's. We bought my father a ride (expensive but also priceless). I have video of him before and after and he was exhilarated. He died less than a month later. If you're looking for a charity (I don't know their deduction status), this foundation is a good investment.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The P-51C was like the B model but built at Dallas rather than Inglewood. For some strange reason many of them had a fin extension added, perhaps because they were built later than the B's. One of those models was modified with a 2nd seat and was used to give Gen Eisenhower a look at the Normandy invasion.

What a wonderful gift for you to give your dad!

By the way, the Collins acquisition will bring the number of P-40B/C aircraft flying in the USA to 3. That is astonishing!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The nearness of death does give you pause to reflect on life and if it has any meaning at all. Of all of the existentialists, I think Camus captured it honestly, never completely giving up his humanity, recognizing that the thought of death is always lurking subconsciously. We suppress the reality that we are all going to die because to think of it spoils life at the present moment.

When we do think of it, particularly here in the west at moments of honesty, we represent the tragedy of it all. Coleridge wrote that the world, for those who think, is a comedy, but, for those who feel, it is a tragedy. Thus, tragic art - literature, drama and especially music, are usually very close to the target as opposed to a Monty Python sketch.

When the character is bad (or semi-bad) the fall can be complete as in Macbeth. When the character is good or innocent, then we tend to gravitate towards outcomes that have some redemptive quality. This is why every hollywood holocaust movie has at least one survivor to live on.

Even in music we see this. When Mario Cavaradossi, the painter in Puccini's Tosca is in thrown in prison and he realizes he is going to die, the tragic aria he sings is deeply moving:

Giuseppe di Stefano's rendition of this aria, e lucevan le stelle, is the best. He was drafted into the Italian Army in WWII and day before leaving to the Eastern Front to help the Germans, his Captain found a way to keep him back. Every man in the company that went was killed.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Expanding this a bit, I think that knowing we are going to die, causes me to appreciate each day I have been granted here.

Dante had a special place for the miserable folks in his Inferno - the sullen and wrathful. In Canto VII as he and Virgil cross over the river Styx (he has the river as a filthy marsh). Virgil points out to him bubbles rising from the slime as he says to Dante, "There are souls beneath that water. Fixed in slime they speak their piece, end it, and start again."

The sullen gargle an endless chant "Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun; in the glory of His shinning our hearts poured a bitter smoke. Sullen were we begun; sullen we lie forever in this ditch."

It is interesting that until these sinners, Dante was either appalled or overcome by pity. This is the first time he ridicules the damned.

Maybe it was the Italian zest for life these sinners lacked that he found so distasteful...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I shall never forget the evening of 9/11, when my then 15 year old daughter turned to me and with utter seriousness said; "Dad, this is my generations' Pearl Harbor".

Would that all Americans had taken that sentiment to heart. I fear a far greater reckoning awaits because too many did not.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I shall never forget the morning of 9/11. I was having a roof deck built above our apartment directly across the east river in Brooklyn. I watched the second plane hit. I knew immediately that it was a terrorist attack and called everyone in my office on Fulton Street to get out. Later that day, my one of my colleagues asked me over the phone if this was payback because Bush didn't sign the Kyoto accord????

Your 15 year old daughter is wise. Unfortunately, there are many wack-jobs in this country who think like my former colleague.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Jonah was the most reluctant of prophets. Given his mission to warn the people of Ninaveh he took a ship headed the other way and thus ended up in the belly of the " big fish".

Given no other choice he completes his mission, complains about it, and then fades into obscurity.

In real life heroes are like that. They do not seek fame nor fortune. Something extraordinary happens and they do what needs to be done. Then they come back to the simple pleasures of ordinary life.

Why do we Jews read Jonah on Yom Kippur, the most magnificent holy day in our year? He is hardly an Abraham, Moses, or David. He was not inspired. He was just a guy with a job he had to do and did it. He had to be pushed into it.

Maybe that was the point after all.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Interesting that many societies remember their defeats rather than their victories. The US recognizes Pearl Harbor every year, and there have been books & movies galore about the loss. Only enthusiasts of military history pause to remember the subsequent victory at Midway.

Similarly with the Brits and their crushing WWII defeat at the hands of the Germans at Dunkirk. Never forgotten. While the British victory over the Germans at El Alamein a few years later remains the province of the military historian.


Maybe because defeat represents the unambiguous intrusion of reality into the world of what today we would call the Low Information Voter or the Obama Voter. We might prefer to buy the world a Coke; but sometimes the world will take our proffered Coke, smash the bottle, and ram it back into our face.

Societies may remember major, but non-terminal, defeats because that is the moment at which a critical mass of the population recognized that looking the other way was no longer an option. Defeat may be a painful but necessary step along the path to eventual survival.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Sometimes a wartime defeat is remembered as an example of heroism and honor upheld to the end (think Thermopylae and Simonides' famous epitaph: "Go tell the Spartans, passerby: That here, by Spartan law, we lie."), or as an event that forged a new sense of state or national identity (think the Alamo and the Republic of Texas, or Gallipoli and Australia and New Zealand). So there may be something positive that can be retrieved from the tragedy of a defeat-- but of course that depends in large measure on the health and integrity of the society that commemorates it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yes, I think that's right. I moved to Australia in the 70's and saw the military march by the Queen in Canberra on TV. The Air Force want by and dipped their colours, the Navy went by and dipped their colours. The Amy marched by and did not. In a word, Gallipoli. I am a Northerner from New Hampshire, but every time I visit Gettysburg I walk the Confederate line. It is different than the Northern line because that place is where part of America began to know bitter and lasting defeat. A great portion of America's strength lies in that experience and will stand us in good stead when our time comes.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"There is no death, only a change of worlds."
- Chief Seattle, 1854
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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