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‘We Remember Mates:’ A Pearl Harbor Survivor Looks Back

‘We Remember Mates:’ A Pearl Harbor Survivor Looks Back

The USS Shaw explodes after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)Today (Dec. 7, 2016) is Pearl Harbor Day. On this day 75 years ago, the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet in Hawaii and launched America into World War II.

Vaughn Hamberlin - Border - Pearl Harbor SurvivorOne of the men who survived the attack was Vaughn Hamberlin, who served aboard the U.S.S. Tennessee. Some 35 years later, in 1976, he revisited the site of the attack and was moved to write an account of that day and his feelings for his fallen comrades.

On this Pearl Harbor Day, his son, Cliff Hamberlin of The Woodlands, tells us about his father. And we hear some of Vaughan’s account of that day from an article he wrote shortly after revisiting the site. It was published in the Beaumont Enterprise.

Vaughn Hamberlin died in 1994 in Beaumont.

(Above: The U.S.S. Shaw explodes after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Photo: Wikipedia Commons. At Right: Vaughn Hamberlin, Pearl Harbor survivor who served on the U.S.S. Tennessee. Photo Courtesy: Cliff Hamberlin)

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“We Remember Mates”
Vaughn Hamberlin’s Account of Pearl Harbor, Used by Permission

As we glided across the blue-green water of Pearl Harbor, we were all caught up in the beauty of the “Pearl of the Pacific.” My mind quickly traveled back across the years to a Sunday morning not unlike this one.

As a young man of nineteen, I had been assigned duty aboard the battleship U.S.S. Tennessee. In two days I would complete my first year in the U.S. Navy. On this particular morning, I was waiting with my fellow softball team members for a launch that was to transport us to the Naval “Rec” field. None of the team ever boarded that launch.

The anticipation of a day of leisure at the recreation field and on the beach was broken by an excited voice on the public announcing system, “All hands man your battle stations!” As the ship’s crew hastened to their stations I thought, “Why couldn’t this drill have Pearl Harbor - Vaughn Hamberlin - Block Quotewaited five minutes, then we would have been off the ship.” I should have known something was wrong; normally, general quarters was sounded on a boatswain’s whistle, followed by verbal instructions. The voice on the loud speaker began shouting, “This is no drill; it is the real thing!”

Before I reached my station the old wagon was shaking from stem to stern. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but the battleship U.S.S. West Virginia which was tied to our port side had taken the first of what would be many torpedoes into her port side. World War II had begun.

From that moment on things began to happen so fast and furious it is hard to put them in sequence. The short time that followed branded my mind with memories that would last a lifetime.

The battleship U.S.S. Maryland was docked just forward of the U.S.S. Tennessee with the U.S.S. Oklahoma alongside her. None of the ships escaped being hit by either torpedoes or bombs in the first few minutes.

At the beginning of the vicious attack, the Oklahoma was hit hard on her port side by several torpedoes – as was the West Virginia. It was standard procedure for all ships to get underway when under attack; but to everyone’s horror, when the Oklahoma’s lines were cut from the Maryland she immediately began to roll over. It only took a few minutes until she was bottom-up, trapping many of her crew below deck.

The West Virginia would have seen the same fate if an old boatswain on the Tennessee had not refused to allow her lines to be cut from us. She sank only a few feet and her keel rested the bottom, wedging the Tennessee against the quays, making it impossible for her to move; but without a doubt the boatswain’s decision had saved many lives on the West Virginia. The U.S.S. California docked forward of the Maryland had much the same fate as the West Virginia.

Being located as they were the Tennessee and Maryland were protected from the torpedo planes. Directly aft of us was the battleship U.S.S. Arizona and the repair ship U.S.S. Vestal was alongside her. Because of Ford Island, the Naval Air Station, the attackers could not make a water approach from our starboard side; however, we did take several heavy bomb hits and a lot of strafing.

Pearl Harbor - Vaughn Hamberlin - Block Quote2Then the biggest blast of the day came; the Arizona blew up! Some believe a bomb went directly in her stack; others believe a torpedo went under the Vestal, hitting her below the armor plating, blowing her boilers and magazines. It seems inconceivable that what I saw could actually happen. Her forward deck seemed to roll forward, and she belched forth fire, steel, oil, and men; all coming down on the ships around her. It seemed for a time the entire line of battlewagons was on fire and that nothing could be saved. My whole world was on fire.

No one knows how, but the Vestal was able to get underway and move out of the holocaust and move away from the Arizona; but her freedom was short lived when she caught a couple of heavy bomb hits – one ripping her open from the main deck to her keel. She began to sink, and her Skipper ran her aground to prevent disaster.

Throughout the attack I was alternately fighting fire and handling the dead and wounded. My hands had never before touched a dead man. It was a horrifying experience to have the flesh of a man fall apart to my touch. I heard cries, whispered prayers of fear, and cursing in anger; but through it all, I saw no panic. I had tasted the bitters of Hell, but I did not weep.

In the days following, I was assigned to a launch as the motorman. Two others – a coxswain and a bowman, made up the launch crew. Our duty was removing bodies that were rising to the surface in the harbor. It was almost impossible to pull the bodies into the launch without tearing the flesh, so we towed them to a specially built float at the recreation field.

After three days this work began to tell on my nerves. Each time we removed a body I was afraid to search for identification; because you see, I was afraid I would find my brother Wayne, who was assigned to the Vestal.

On the third day after the attack, I told the bowman how to operate the engine and then asked the coxswain to drop me off on the gangway to the Vestal, then lay-off and wait for me. I was surprised when the Duty Officer allowed me aboard; but when I told him why I made the request, all he asked me was if I know where my brother’s quarters were.  When I said yes, he welcomed me aboard. I walked to the hatch that led down to Wayne’s quarters, and my heart almost stopped from what I saw. The hatchway was blown away, and a bomb had gone right through Wayne’s quarters. I began to shake. I tried to light a cigarette, and my hands shook so hard I couldn’t contact flame with cigarette. A man lit my cigarette for me.  It was a friend of my brother whom I had met on a previous visit. He said Wayne was okay, but was on the beach in a work party. I was shaken, but did not weep.

It took ten day to remove the Tennessee from her wedge between the West Virginia and the quays. When she was freed we returned to the shipyard at Bremerton, Washington for extensive repairs and alterations.

The years that followed were spent on three ships in every corner of the globe, both in the Pacific and the Atlantic. All through the suspense, monotony, loneliness, and horror, I was proud that this farm boy had the privilege of wearing the uniform of Uncle Sam’s Navy. The songs “Anchors Aweigh,” “America the Beautiful,” and our beloved “Star Spangled Banner” still make my chest swell with pride.

As the tour craft pulled alongside the memorial that is constructed over the still visible hull of the Arizona, my thoughts returned to the present. The crowd was very quiet as we filed aboard the Memorial. The first thing we saw was the great bell that served the battleship for many years. The people were very reverent; and when anyone spoke, it was almost in a whisper. My wife and I stood for several minutes viewing the pictures of the attack and read the more than one thousand names of those still entombed in the hull only a few feet below where we were standing.

As we stood looking down on what would have been about mid-ship, small wisps of oil would occasionally break on the surface as if those below were saying, “Hey up there; we’re still here.” I wanted to shout, “We remember mates – and thank you.” I wept.

As I stood gripping the railing with my back to the crowd so they could not see the tears rolling down my face, my thoughts raced through history and the years from 1776 to the present. There were so many that had paid the ultimate price to win and hold the freedom we enjoy. To those below and the others before and after you, “You are not forgotten.”

“We Remember Mates”
Vaughn E. Hamberlin
Born: Sept. 26, 1922 in Gilmer, Texas
Died: April 13, 1994 in Beaumont, Texas
Mr. Hamberlin first visited the Arizona Memorial in April 1976 and wrote this article May 10, 1976.

About the Author

Michael Hagerty

Michael HagertyMichael Hagerty is the Senior Producer for Houston Matters. He has a degree in journalism from Abilene Christian University and has served as news director for NPR and PBS stations around Texas and The West, including: KUNR-FM in Reno, Nev.; KNPB-TV in Reno, Nev.; and KWBU-TV/FM in Waco, Texas. He got his start on the air as a college student hosting Morning Edition at KACU-FM in Abilene, Texas. A native of the Chicago area and an avid Cubs fan, Michael spent four seasons as the public address announcer for the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.View all posts by Michael Hagerty →