The following account is based on interviews given by Thomas J. Poole in 1955, 1989, and 2014/2015.
After twelve weeks of boot camp I was assigned to the USS Raleigh (CL7). Ship and crew ordered to Pearl Harbor in 1939. I was still there in ‘41 when, on December 7, Japanese launched their surprise attack against us in what the history books call “Operation Hawaii” or “Operation Z”. Of course, there were no history books about the attack back then, it was current events, as current as could be.
That Sunday morning was probably no different on the Raleigh than on any of the other days. The sun is very bright at that time of the day there, and the air is so clear and fresh that the breezes seem to wash everything as they drift over the quiet water.
By the next morning, however, the skies were still full of smoke and the water was dirty with oil and wreckage from many ships. The Raleigh was on the bottom of the harbor with water lapping over the main decks and two gaping holes in her sides.
I was asleep when the alarm sounded about 6:55 for “General Quarters” and the word passed that the Japanese were attacking by air. With just enough time to pause to get my trousers on, I raced to my battle station in one of the four fire rooms.
The Raleigh was a four-piper cruiser with 12 boilers in all; a torpedo had hit near number 2 fire room and demolished six boilers at once. The fire room crews concentrated their efforts on keeping the remaining six boilers going to provide steam for the pumps (the ship was flooding) and generators supplying current to the guns.
I and my buddies soon found ourselves in a losing battle. The source of fresh water to supply the boilers was gone, and we had to use salt water from the harbor to make steam. Salt water leaves deposits inside the boilers as it turns to steam and soon closes the boiler tubes. It was a matter of using a boiler full blast until it clogged and burned up, then going on to another. With only six to start with, it didn’t take long to run out of boilers.
I’d wanted to make the Navy my career. Of course, Pearl Harbor kind of decided that for me. I think now, Pearl Harbor was like a bad dream. There was a lot of concussion and a lot of confusion, people running here and people running there, bodies in the water and ships on fire. The Utah was tied next to us and it had rolled over. I knew there were men trapped inside.
Then the second wave of the Japanese attack came, strafers and dive bombers this time, and the ship was hit again. At this point I was helping man the guns, as engineers were assigned to assist handling ammunition. I and a guy named Williams were going to a gun station and he stepped through a doorway just as a 500-pound bomb came through the deck. Its fins hit him in the left shoulder and sliced it open. We dived for cover as the bomb passed through two more decks and exploded in the bay bottom below us. Lucky for us, as the tank we were hiding under contained 1000 gallons of aviation fuel.
The Japanese were so close, I saw one shake his fist at us and could tell he was wearing a red tassel. I shook my fist back at him. I wished I’d have had a shotgun. Instead, we were sitting dead in the water. We kept firing, though. We were credited with six down planes. We were the lucky ones, too. Williams, hit by a torpedo fin, and one other sailor who slipped on the deck and knocked his teeth out were our only recorded casualties.
By this time the ship had taken a direct bomb hit on the stern or “fantail.” Again, the bomb failed to explode inside the ship but went on through and blew up underneath in the water. The Raleigh was already listing severely to starboard, and the underwater blast lifted her up and over to port. By this time also she was pretty far down in the water and was soon abandoned with decks awash.
We cut a hole in the battleship’s hull with acetylene torches and found another survivor. I remember he fell right on his knees and thanked the Lord.
After the attack, my shipmates and I stayed aboard for the next several weeks to being the salvaging operation. It was a gruesome sight. They stacked all the bodies on an island which was the fleet landing. Most were burnt beyond recognition.
Meanwhile, back in the States, my girl Amber heard by word of mouth that I’d died. We’d been childhood sweethearts, but drifted apart after I joined the Navy and was sent to Hawaii. Her family moved to Newport News, Virginia, where a friend told her I’d been killed. Now, I’d sent a Red Cross telegram home telling folk I was alright, but it never came through. I made it home on survivors leave and found Amber on a blind date with a Marine in Ryman’s drug store over in Bridgeton. “Tom Poole!” she said, “I thought you were dead!” I tell you she left that Marine sitting there alone. We were married the next week and she never left me again.
So you can see, much like Mark Twain, the reports of my death were greatly exaggerated.
Some people go back to Pearl Harbor every year.
I don’t want to go back to Pearl Harbor.