A U.S. Naval Aviator (My Uncle) Remembers the Attack on Pearl Harbor

In honour of the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I’m doing something a little different today.

My Uncle Howard, who died in 2001, was a U.S. naval officer and fighter pilot on the U.S.S. Tennessee when it was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941.

He survived that awful day.

Later his plane was shot down during the Battle of Midway, but he survived that too.

After the war, when President Kennedy confronted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over the Soviets’ deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba, my Uncle Howard developed the resulting operational plan for the Naval task force.

After WWII Uncle Howard — like many veterans — didn’t talk about his war experiences. Younger generations in the family didn’t even know he was at Pearl Harbor. Not until 41 years later, in 1982, did he finally reveal what happened.

Here is that account.

I am writing this account 41 years after the event took place. Consequently I may be somewhat guilty of attenuating the facts. If this is the case, it is inadvertent and should be chalked up to the passage of time.

I was a young Naval Aviator attached to the U.S.S. Tennessee, a battleship moored in Pearl Harbor adjacent to Ford Island. This moorage was known as “Battleship Row.” I was one of four pilots flying scout — observation aircraft that were catapulted into the air from the ship.

Unlike aircraft carriers, battleships and cruisers had no deck space upon which to land, so the planes were on floats and we landed in the open sea alongside our ship. Then we were hoisted aboard by crane to the catapult, ready to be launched again. This was pretty tricky aviation requiring considerable skill and knowledge of air and seamanship. Later in my career I found flying from aircraft carriers infinitely easier.

The week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the battle Fleet had been going through a battle exercise. We returned to port on Friday the 5th of December. Liberty was granted 75% of the officers and crew as was the peacetime custom. My duty section drew the weekend duty, so I remained aboard.

On Sunday morning, December 7th, I was scheduled to fly anti-aircraft gunnery tracking runs over the fleet to exercise the duty anti-aircraft crews of the ships in the harbor. This was looked upon by both the gunnery crews and the pilots as boring “make-work,” especially on a Sunday morning.

I awoke to the tinny sound of reveille coming over the ships speaker system at six that morning. I showered, shaved and donned my dress white uniform, muttering to myself all the while about how ridiculous it was to [be] required to dress so formally for breakfast only to have to undress and don my flight gear for my scheduled 9:30 AM take-off. This meant leaving the ship about 8:15 by boat for Ford Island Naval Air Station where our planes were located when the ship was in port.

Shortly before 8:00, while finishing a second cup of coffee, the General Alarm sounded, followed by the shrill whistle of the B’sun’s pipe, and the announcement, “General Quarters, all hands man your battle stations — this is no drill — repeat, this is NO drill!”

The import of what had been said over the speaker system did not register with me. I thought that what had been said was, “this IS a DRILL.”

I casually got up, left the junior officer’s mess, returned to my stateroom and changed into my flight gear — all the while grousing about these damn surprise drills on quiet Sunday mornings.

I could hear all the water tight doors and hatches being dogged down while I was quickly changing. All at once I felt a heavy jar and a thudding explosion. this surprised and puzzled me. I made my way as rapidly as possible to my battle station which was the after catapult located on the fantail (stern of the ship). I was assigned there to man the aircraft, however there was none since they were ashore.

As I stood by the catapult looking across the battleship West Virginia, tied up along the side but outboard of the Tennessee, I could see a flight of aircraft skimming over the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard coming in low over the water at the line of battleships.

They suddenly dropped torpedoes, and as they zoomed over us I could see the red meatball insignia on the wings. It was at this time that it finally registered on me that something was very wrong! Moments later torpedoes exploded into the port side of the West Virginia and the Oklahoma directly in from of her. The West Virginia seemed to rise several feet out of the water before settling back and beginning to list to port. At the same time smoke and fire erupted from the ruptured fuel oil tanks of the torpedoed ships.

I then became aware of the dive bombers attacking. They dropped specially designed bombs to penetrate the thick armor of the battle ships. The most successful hits were registered on the Arizona tied up directly astern of us. She took a fatal bomb hit through turret two directly into the powder magazines below, literally blowing her out of the water. The concussion knocked me down.

By now, the West Virginia had sunk alongside, the Oklahoma had rolled over the front of us and the Arizona had blown up astern. The Tennessee sustained bomb hits and was strafed heavily, but survived. We had been protected from the torpedo attack by the West Virginia tied outboard of us and Ford Island on our starboard side.

Our anti-aircraft gunners shot down several attacking planes, as well as I could see that the gunners on board the West Virginia were firing although the ship was sinking and on fire.

It seemed that the entire harbor was on fire from my vantage point, fed from the ruptured fuel tanks of the sunken ships. The smoke was indescribably black and thick.

Those of us who had useless battle stations (under the circumstances) began to rescue men who were either blown into the water or had jumped in to escape the sinking ships, by throwing them lines and hauling them aboard.

After bringing a good many sailors to the deck of the Tennessee, we carried them down below to a battle dressing station to attempt to care for them. Most were covered with heavy, thick fuel oil and terribly burned, since most were wearing white shorts and shirts. We did what we could for them under the circumstances, but most were beyond help.

Soon the area of the battle dressing station began to fill with smoke, and I ordered everyone to put on gas masks in the hopes of filtering out the smoke. Most of the men did not know how to use them and thought that they were suffocating because they did not remove the tape across the holes in the filtering canister of the mask, which would allow air to flow through the mask.

As it turned out the masks were useless and we resorted to soaking gauze dressings in water and tying them over our mouths and noses.

We found out later that the source of the smoke came from the layer upon layer of paint that had been applied to the ship over the many years. The intense oil fires burning on the surface of the harbor ignited the paint on both t he inside and outside of the ship.

What I have just described took place in something more than an hour’s time.

Sometime, shortly before noon, we secured from general quarters and I managed to get over to the Air Station at Ford Island.

The air detachments began to survey what we had left in the way of aircraft. The rest of the day and most of the night was spent in trying to put as many planes as we could in flyable condition so that a scouting mission could be mounted at first light on the morning of the eighth. We fully expected the Japanese to return to attack. For some unknown reason they did not.

As I recall, about 9 AM the night of the 7th, five dive bombers from the carrier Enterprise, returning to Pearl Harbor from Wake Island, flew into a blacked out Pearl Harbor. Since no on knew they were coming, they were assumed to be enemy planes. I think three were shot down in the chaos and confusion.

I finally managed to get three hours sleep wrapped up in a parachute on the concrete deck of a bombed-out hanger.

I was awakened about three in the morning to be briefed for a radius of action search for the Japanese fleet. Radius of action search means fly as far out as you possibly can and still return.

Five of us took off about an hour before dawn the morning of the 8th. Even though we took off from the water within the harbor with our navigation lights on to preclude trigger happy anti-aircraft crews from shooting at us, sure enough some nervous clown started firing and that set off everyone. Fortunately, we escaped being hit and proceeded out on the search.

My mission lasted over 5 1/2 hours. It was fruitless because the enemy had beat a hasty retreat to the north west and were well out of range.

When I finally landed back at base, I had cut my fuel so fine that I ran out of gas before I could taxi up to the ramp. One of [the] search crews not so lucky, going down at sea never to be recovered.

From that day on, the United States Navy picked itself up from the Ashes of Pearl Harbor and went on to avenge the honor of our country and the men who lost their lives in that place on that day. I was proud to serve then and I would be again if called upon.

Howard J. Silberstein
Captain, United States Navy (retired)

Seattle Times Article/Obituary

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 SD December 7, 2012 at 9:11 am

Thank you for sharing this story, truly an a amazing account of a dreadful situation.

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2 Renee December 7, 2012 at 9:36 am

Thanks, Stefan. Nothing brings history to life like reading 1st-hand accounts. I’m glad it resonated.

– Renee

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3 Living Outside of the Box December 7, 2012 at 10:52 am

What a powerful first-hand account. Glad you were able to get this from him, even if it was years and years later!

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4 Tom Medsger December 7, 2012 at 11:19 am

Good morning, Renee,

Thank you, thank you, for telling your uncle’s story! I learned many things, namely that “observation aircraft … were catapulted into the air from the ship,” and that our own planes were shot down by friendly fire because those planes returning from Wake Island were thought to be Japanese. We can be grateful that your uncle wrote this down and that you passed it along.

I am going to write Mark an e-mail soon, in response to his acknowledgement of my subscription renewal, and I want to ask him about his e-book design business. Hope you’re all doing well. I really hope we can get together in Querétaro on Feb. 16 and/or 17. That’s my “free” weekend when we won’t be teaching. Lunch and/or dinner is on me!

Hasta luego, Tom

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5 Tiffany December 7, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Thank you for sharing your uncle’s account of the day, Renee.
The late Captain Silberstein is a hero.

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6 Kerri December 7, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Thank you for sharing your uncles story. My great Uncle Theodore Stevens died on the Arizona that day. I have always wondered what it must have been like.
Kerri recently posted..Sydney’s Corner: The Egg DropMy Profile

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