CM – The story behind Pearl Harbor’s most successful rescue mission

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80 years ago, civilian Julio DeCastro and his colleagues rescued 32 sailors who were in the U.S.S. were trapped. « Oklahoma »

David Kindy

When Julio DeCastro, a civilian worker at the Pearl Harbor shipyard, found the capsized U.S.S. Oklahoma On the infamous morning of December 7, 1941, he heard the frantic knocking of sailors trapped in the hull. Hours earlier, Japanese troops had torpedoed the American battleship during a surprise attack on the Honolulu military base, rolling it on its side with more than 450 men below deck.

For the next two days, DeCastro, a sealer and shredder, worked , almost continuously in a valiant effort to reach out to seafarers at risk. The native Hawaiian and his colleagues at the naval shipyard eventually rescued 32 members of the ship’s crew – an act of bravery quoted in « Infamy: Pearl Harbor Remembered, » a new exhibition at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans on the 80th anniversary of the attack / p> « [As a civilian] DeCastro acted on his own initiative, organized a group of individuals, procured tools and equipment, and then went deeper and deeper into the ship, » says Tom Czekanski, the museum’s chief curator and restoration manager. “You risked your own life to save these men.”

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor began just before 8am on December 7th. In the next hour and 15 minutes, Japanese forces damaged or destroyed 19 American ships and left the normally peaceful Hawaiian naval base in fire and fear. The total death toll in the United States from the bombing was 2,403 soldiers and civilians.

In reports and commemoration of Pearl Harbor, soldiers such as Dorie Miller, an African American cook who received the Navy Cross for shooting down two Japanese planes, and Aloysius Schmitt, a naval chaplain who received the Silver Star for sacrificing his life to help 12 sailors escape the Oklahoma – are widely known for their courage. But few today remember the contributions of DeCastro and his civilian colleagues.

As the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported in March 1942, DeCastro and his crew used blowtorches, pneumatic shredder guns, compressors, and other tools to help them To break through the thickly armored hull of the ship.

« They tried cutting torches first, but the compartment underneath caught fire, » says Czekanski. “In these compartments, cork was often used as insulation. The oil-based paint used on ships at the time was thick enough to sting. The paint on the steel would catch fire. ”

Next, the rescuers turned to striking weapons. The chisel-equipped tools use pneumatic pressure to quickly hammer away and cut through steel – a slow, arduous process. « Many battleships back then had 16 » armor on the sides for protection, « adds Czekanski. “It’s closer to a quarter of an inch at the bottom, but it’s steel. Basically, they cut through steel plates with a hammer and chisel. ”

On top of the danger, the workers didn’t know what was beneath them. As far as they knew, their hackers could break into fuel tanks, powder magazines, ammunition bunkers, or other explosives.

Fortunately, Commander E.P. Kranzfelder had a solution. The U.S.S. assigned to Maryland, which was anchored next to the Oklahoma, he found a manual with wiring diagrams and details for the overturned battleship. The Booklet for General Plans of the Oklahoma would save time and life as workers tried to break through the keel and rescue the sailors in it.

Even with the booklet, the rescue was long, hard work. The crew struggled through the hot day into the cold night and tried to break through the hull. « The Arizona was still on fire, » DeCastro told the Honolulu Star Bulletin. “[I] t threw a light on us while we were working. And flak fired everywhere for about an hour. But we kept working. If the fire got too hot, we’d hit the hull flat and hope nothing hit us. ”Stephen Bower Young was one of the sailors trapped in Oklahoma. He and ten other sailors were under a turret at the bottom of the ship when it capsized. Now they were stuck near the top of the ship. With the air supply falling and the water rising in the pitch-black compartment, Young and the others took turns using a wrench to express “SOS” in Morse code.

“We didn’t know that a rescue attempt was being made until the first sound of the air hammer could be heard as dusk fell over the islands, ”wrote Young later in Trapped at Pearl Harbor.

As the rescuers got on with the hammering, another problem arose. Her cuts let air escape from inside the ship, causing water to pour into the compartment below. The captured sailors struggled to close the openings, but they were soon knee-deep in the water.

Finally the work crew managed to break through the hull. Shipyard worker Joe Bulgo reached in and began pulling sailors out. One pointed to the adjoining compartment and said: « There are a few guys trapped in it. »

This adjacent hold, also known as the « Lucky Bag », was used to store peaches and personal items. According to Young, who was stuck inside, DeCastro replied, « We’ll get her out. » It took Bulgo an hour to break through the bulkhead. He made three cuts in the steel, then yelled, « Take care of your hands, boys » as he pounded through the wall with a sledgehammer. Young and the ten sailors rushed to safety.

In total, DeCastro and his staff rescued 32 men from Oklahoma. Of a total crew of almost 1,400 officers and sailors, 429 died as a result of the attack. Navy divers found the last remains of the sailors in June 1944.

The sinking of the U.S.S. Arizona was responsible for about half of the total death toll in the attack, with 1,177 officers and crew members killed and 335 survivors. The battleship’s destroyed hull was left in place and is now the site of a national monument.

Similar rescue efforts at Pearl Harbor failed to reflect DeCastro’s success. With the Oklahoma capsizing, this team had better luck reaching survivors at the bottom of the ship, which was now above the surface. Ships that first sank on the keel made it more difficult and dangerous to reach seafarers trapped underwater.

On the U.S.S. West Virginia, the knocking from the bottom of the ship lasted more than two weeks. Rescuers tried to reach the sound, but the damage was too great. Months later, salvage workers found the remains of three sailors – Ronald Endicott, Clifford Olds, and Louis Costin – in an airtight compartment. On the wall was a calendar with 16 dates crossed out in red pencil: December 7th to December 23rd.

“A diver nearly died trying to rescue men from the United States. Arizona, which is one of the reasons they didn’t go to West Virginia, ”says marine historian Michael Lilly, a founding director of the U.S.S. Missouri Memorial Association and author of the book Nimitz at Ease. « The Navy has decided it is too dangerous to extract. »

The former Navy officer pauses and adds, « I would be haunted if I were one of those sailors for two weeks Hear those guys beating around down there. It would never leave me. It is desperate to believe that there was nothing we could do to raise her. It’s a sad, sad story. ”For his part, DeCastro received a commendation from the Commander of the 14th Marine District. He died in 1984. When asked about DeCastro years later, Young said simply, “He was a leader of men.”

In view of the rescue mission in 1942, DeCastro informed the Honolulu Star Bulletin that he would be Monday night , December 8th, received an unexpected request when returning to the naval shipyard.

« Someone came up to me while I was changing, » he said. “I was really hungry and wanted to go home. This guy asks me, ‘Why didn’t you fill out this overtime sheet?’ I looked at him and said, ‘Christamighty!’ « 

 » Then because it was blackout and no transport was available, « the newspaper reported, « DeCastro walked five miles through the unsafe second night of the war to his house. »

David Kindy
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David Kindy is the daily correspondent for Smithsonian. He is also a journalist, freelance writer, and book reviewer based in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He writes on history, culture, and other topics for Air & Space, Military History, World War II, Vietnam, Aviation History, Providence Journal, and other publications and websites.

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