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John McGoran
Remembers the way peace ended.

USS California (BB-44)

John H. McGoran - U.S. Navy Seaman,
"striking" for Signalman in Admiral Pye's Flag.
19 Years old
Born November 5, 1922
USS California (BB 44)
Battle Station; Number 3 Turret
Lower Powder Handling Room.

The morning of December 7, 1941 was typical of any Sunday morning aboard the battleship USS CALIFORNIA. My billet for meals was the Marines' casemate #8 (an armored enclosure for a gun) located portside midship, just where the forecastle breaks and a ladder leads down to the quarter-deck. Breakfast over, I took my dirty dishes to the scullery below. Lamentably, that's the way peace ended. Just then a sailor ran by crazily singing, "The Japs are coming--hurrah, hurrah!"
I don't remember the alarm that sounded General Quarters. I only know that suddenly I joined in a rush to battle stations, in No 3 turret's lower powder handling room.

When hurrying to our battle stations, to reach the decks below, we were trained to jump down the hatch --instead of using it's ladder --(ladder is ship talk and most often refers to a steep iron stairway). Then, grab onto a bar attached to the overhead (ceiling) of the deck below and swing ones body into a run in the lower passageway. That's roughly the way I arrived at my battle station in the "lower powder handling room" where a First-class petty-officer, named Allen, was in charge.

Allen was one of those old-time petty officers referred to as "The backbone of the Fleet." Now, he was busily giving orders we couldn't carry out because no one had the keys to the powder magazines(room).

Suddenly, a violent lurching shook us all, tossing us around like so many unmuscled puppets as the ship seemed to rise up a foot, then settle back. Allan grabbed at his ear phones. "We're hit." he cried. "A torpedo!"

"So what!" I thought foolishly. "Enjoy it!" The armor plating around the USS CALIFORNIA was at least a foot thick.

My idiot elation was brief. A torpedo had hit us. (Three in all hit below the armor plating and made huge holes.) The fuel tank next to our port magazine ignited in flames and there we were, surrounded on three sides by powder-filled magazines.

Immediately orders came to check the temperature of the bulkhead (wall) separating the magazine from the fuel tank. We forced the lock on the magazine door and opened it. With that accomplished we discovered the covers had shaken off some of the cans containing the 14-inch powder bags and the aisle was strewn with ripped open bags of gunpowder.

Anxiously, I entered, walking carefully over the debris to feel the bulkhead. I returned and reported to Allen that the bulkhead was cool. Allen in turn passed the reassuring word over the mouthpiece of his headset to the bridge.

Whatever reply came back over the phones was reflected in the strain on Allen's face. He couldn't seem to comprehend, perhaps he didn't want to believe. He turned to us and almost in a whisper said, "The OKLAHOMA! It has capsized!" Frighteningly, our ship was beginning to list dangerously.

Allan received a report that our anti aircraft ammunition supply line had broken down from an explosion. The break was reported to be in "CL" compartment, my sleeping quarters, and when the call came, I said I'd go. Two other seamen also volunteered for the job.

As I stood there looking into "CL" compartment, my companion, a seaman named "Smitty", called to me. I turned to see him on the opposite side of the conveyor trying to help a shipmate whose back was against the bulkhead, but who was slowly slipping to the deck (floor). His eyes were rolled back into his head. He looked like he was dying.

"This one is still alive," Smitty said calmly. Smitty was a small fellow but he managed to wrestle the wounded shipmate to me and I pulled his limp body over the conveyor into the passageway. If on December 6th anyone had asked me to help save the life of this offensive guy, I would have answered, "To hell with him." I had known this fellow since boot-camp, and he was one of the most overbearing individuals I had ever met. But now, unconscious, he had no personality; his was a life to be saved.

To reach the first-aid station, Smitty and I back-tracked aft on the starboard side. Now and then, we had to stop and lay him down, so we could rest. Catching our breaths, we moved on again. As we trudged along, we had to again open and close the watertight bulkhead doors while making our way back through the passageway to a ladder up, which was near the man-hole down to number three lower handling, from where we started. The hatch-cover at the top of the ladder was dogged down---another Navy term for closed and watertight. But, it was the nearest escape to the decks above. We undogged the hatch and pushed it open. Smitty took the injured man's legs and started up the ladder; I got him under the arms again and just as I'd taken a second or third step up the ladder an explosion again rocked the ship.

Suddenly, a steam pipe nearby blew out. In a stunning moment of chaos that followed, I heard the cry,"Gas!" Unquestioningly, I held my breath until I could fit my gas-mask to my face. The gas mask was very uncomfortable and it was difficult to cope with. Finally, I lifted it a bit to sniff the air to determine whether or not it smelled safe to breathe; it did.

Smitty and I debated whether to try to escape by going back to "CL" compartment and try a ladder there, or opening this hatch again and trying to escape here. Hesitatingly, we again tackled this ladder. We again opened the hatch cover and saw no evidence of damage from the explosion.

What actually happened was a bomb penetrated the decks above and exploded in front of the ship's store, several feet forward of the ladder. It killed "Boots," one of the masters-at-arms (ship's policeman). It bent a heavy steel hatch-combing flush with the deck.

We picked up our injured shipmate and carried him up. This time, we were lucky and got him to the first-aid station.

Some station! It was normally the crews' recreation room, but now a state of incredible confusion prevailed. We laid our shipmate on the deck. A chief petty officer, whom I recognized as one of the "black-gang" (engine room crew), came over and with great authority asked if he was alive. "We think so," I said. "Then get him out of the way," ordered the chief. "Slide him under the table where nobody will trip over him." (Later in the week, I learned that the fellow's back had been broken, but he would recover.) Then the chief went back to directing and sorting the living from the dead. As men brought in casualties, the chief would say, "Dead or alive? If they're dead, take them into the other room and throw them on the dead pile." He repeatedly made rounds of the room inspecting bodies. "his man is dead---Get him out of here." Normally this cold, hard manner would have been resented. Now, I could only feel admiration for his efficiency.

As I stood, trying to comprehend all of this, someone handed me a bottle of root-beer and a sandwich. Ordinarily I would have retch at the sight of so much blood, but I ate and drank, completely amazed at my appetite under such conditions and decided it was all incomprehensible.

While I was in the first-aid station, word came to abandon ship. Whether or not this was an official order, I don't know. But instead, the Chief Petty Officer in charge, and a Warrant Officer, named Applegate, formed a work-party of ten men to search for anti-aircraft ammunition, since ours could not be reached, due to a bomb explosion.

Our work-party first went aft to the door which exited onto the starboard quarter-deck. We were about to proceed across the quarter-deck to board a motor launch when someone warned us that a wave of strafing Japanese planes was passing over. The planes came in low, firing their machine guns. Between sorties, men from nearby battle stations raced out on the quarterdeck and dragged to shelter those who had been struck by the machine gun fire. Then, as soon as we felt it was safe, we ran for the motor launch, which was waiting for us at the port quarter. dry-docks. She seemed to be out of the channel, perhaps she had turned to avoid a bomb.

Our coxswain took our launch into the space between the capsized OKLAHOMA and the port side forecastle of the MARYLAND. Shouting up to sailors on the MARYLAND's forecastle, we tried to convey to them that we needed ammunition, but we could rouse no support. Their problems were far greater to them than what we were shouting up to them from our motor launch. , and spoken to an officer there, we might have been more successful.

Once it became clear that we could expect no help from this quarter, we gave up trying to board the MARYLAND. The coxswain maneuvered the motor launch from between the two battleships and motored around the whale shaped hull of the capsized OKLAHOMA and went to the USS WEST VIRGINIA.

By this time, the WEST VIRGINIA had sunk deep enough so that it was with little effort that Warrant Officer Applegate, and the five men he picked, to clamber aboard. I watched as they crossed the ship's forecastle, walking under the barrels of the 16-inch guns, and walk aft on the starboard side. We never saw them again.

Within minutes the forecastle shot up in smoke and flames. (It may have been the bomb that hit the turret of the TENNESSEE.) An officer in his white uniform appeared engulfed in the fire. Someone on board shouted, "Get out of there. The ship can blow up any minute."

The explosion frightened us terribly. The coxswain began backing the launch away from the burning battleship, Suddenly, I saw that the coxswain was not aware of the danger immediately behind our launch; we were backing straight for one of the large propellers of the capsized OKLAHOMA sticking high out of the water.

I yelled at the coxswain, "Reverse your engines." At the same time, two of us clambered to the tiller-deck, and scrambled over the taffrail. With one hand grasping the taffrail, we reached with our legs -- spread eagle like -- and with our feet, shoved against the propeller. Unquestionably, our effort prevented the motor launch from being damaged; but we just did what the situation required.

The coxswain now had the launch underway forward. Then we saw a man struggling in the water near the midships section of the WEST VIRGINIA. "We're going in after him", he told us. The coxswain maneuvered in to pick up the man from the water, bringing him dangerously close to the perimeter of the burning oil that was closing in.

By now I was overwhelmed by all that was happening around us and for the life of me, I can't recall whether that man made it into the boat. We headed for 1010 dock at the Navy shipyard.

And there was, indeed, reason to feel overwhelmed. On every side were almost unbearable sights. Battleship Row was devastated. From the direction of the dry docks, an explosion shook the harbor. This was the destroyer SHAW. Just two weeks before, I had visited my brother's ship in that same dry dock.

The ST LOUIS was gaining speed, but we were able to come alongside her starboard quarter (there's another historical picture which shows our motor launch underway alongside the ST. LOUIS), where we tried to clamber aboard the gangway which was still hanging over the side. An officer on deck denied us permission to come aboard. Frustrated, we abandoned the attempt to board the ST LOUIS and headed for 1010 dock at the Naval Ship Yard, where everyone went their individual ways.

Only one who was there can fully appreciate what took place. As a Pearl Harbor Survivor who was at ground zero on "battleship row," the morning of December 7, 1941, I feel, "if you didn't go through it, there's no words that can adequately describe it; if you were there, then no words are necessary."

John H. McGoran
105 Granada Dr
Corte Madera, CA 94925-2007

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