Voices from the Pacific War Voices from the Pacific War

Oral Histories


Mr. Raymond Bowden was born at home in Bradley, California, in 1921. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1938. Upon completion of boot camp he was assigned to USS Oklahoma, BB-37. Oklahoma was commissioned in 1916, and served in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets until it was torpedoed and capsized at Pearl Harbor on the morning of 7 December 1941. On that day, more than four hundred officers and enlisted men were either killed or declared missing. Many others were trapped within the capsized hull. Some died there, while others were rescued when holes were cut in the bottom of the ship. An attempt to salvage the Oklahoma was begun in March 1943. However, she was never able to return to service as was the case with many of the other battleships damaged and even sunk at Pearl Harbor. In 1947, while being towed from Hawaii to San Francisco, she parted her tow lines and sank. Mr. Bowden finished the war aboard the USS Santee, a light carrier, and left the Navy in 1947 as a chief petty officer. He now lives in Vacaville, California.

When I was a kid I didn’t like working on the farm. It was hot in the summer. My dad had been in the navy during World War I, and I had a cousin who was a cook in the navy. He came to visit me one time, and the idea of joining the navy sounded refreshing. Anyway, it was hot working out there in the hayfields, so I came in one day, and my mother was standing there under the shade of a tree. I said to her, “I think I’ll join the navy, and I hope it won’t be this hot wherever they send me.”
There was a chief petty officer who was our company commander when I went to boot camp. I remember him telling us, “You may be cussing me and everybody else around here, but in your later years you are going to look back and remember this as having been the best time of your life.” He was right, and I wound up as a Recruit Instructor myself before I got out of the navy.
I went aboard USS Oklahoma in March 1939 in San Francisco. I went aboard as a green seaman and eventually made coxswain. That would be the equivalent of a boatswain mate third class today, and I was in charge of a forty-foot motor launch.
On 7 December 1941, I had the duty and was getting ready to make a run to shore at around 0800. I was watching the marines and the ship’s band get ready to raise the colors, when all of a sudden I heard machine guns and an airplane fly over. I didn’t think much of either because the army and navy had been having practice dogfights since the summer before. Then an airplane flew overhead and I saw two meatballs on its wings. By then, the West Virginia, which was astern of us and out board of the Tennessee, had taken a torpedo. Within a short period of time the first of several torpedoes hit the Oklahoma. I then told my boat crew, “Get the hell out of here! This ain’t no drill!”
We all went to our battle stations, and mine was over the bridge, on the director for the 5-inch antiaircraft battery. I was on the after part of the ship, and climbed a ladder to the “boat boom,” then ran along the main deck to the forward part of the ship and up to the gun director. The Japs were strafing us, and I could hear the PING of bullets as I ran along the deck. By the time I got to my battle station we had taken five torpedo hits. There were only two of us in the gun director by the time I got there, myself and Bobby Jones, and the ship was starting to roll to port pretty fast. We couldn’t do anything with the director because there wasn’t any power. It had to be switched on for us from the engine room. Other men had manned their battle stations, too, but like us they didn’t have any power, and all of our ammunition was locked up in the ready boxes. The boatswain of the ship, a chief warrant officer, got a hammer and broke the locks. The way it was set up in those days, while the navy was in port, the army was supposed to protect us, even though we had more guns than they did. That is why the ready boxes all had locks on them.
The Oklahoma began to roll to port so fast that we didn’t have a chance to counter-flood. Then I noticed men leaving the ship. Word had been passed to abandon ship, but we couldn’t hear it up in the gun director. I was later told that the boatswain mate of the watch said, “Pass the word to abandon ship, and this is no shit!” His name was Simmons.
Some guys couldn’t get topside before the ship rolled over. There were some fourteen-inch portholes in the side of the ship and a few people made their way out through them, but one guy got stuck in one of the portholes and couldn’t get out. He drowned.
Anyway, I told Bobby, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” As we were leaving, I saw one of my crew, a boatswain’s mate by the name of West, laying in the ship’s gutter, dead. I got down onto the signal bridge, which was the next deck down, and then made my way down to the boat deck. I thought about abandoning ship on the port side, but then realized that the ship would come down on top of me if I did. By the time I got to the starboard side, the ship had rolled ninety-degrees. I climbed over the life line and found myself standing on the side of the ship looking down at its bottom. Just then the Arizona blew up. I happened to be looking right at it when it happened. It seemed to lift right out of the water.
At the time, the USS Vestal was tied up alongside of her, doing some repair work, and its captain was blown off the ship. I guess one of the officers still aboard the Vestal thought they were sinking and ordered abandon ship. As men were leaving the ship, this oily apparition came back aboard and said, “Where the hell do you think you are going?” Somebody said, “We are abandoning ship.” The apparition was the captain and he said, “The hell you are! Man your battle stations!” They managed to cut their mooring lines and pull away from the burning Arizona. 
I went into the water and swam over to the Maryland, which was between the Oklahoma and Ford Island. I climbed up on the blister and walked back towards the quarterdeck. From there I climbed over the lifeline and up to the boat deck where some antiaircraft guns were. There were others from the Oklahoma already there, and since the Maryland didn’t have any power to their guns either, gunners from the Oklahoma were ramming in 5-inch/25 shells by hand. Those shells looked like big .22-caliber bullets, and weighed between fifty and seventy-five pounds, depending on what type of charge they had. The gun crews were ramming those shells in by hand so fast that they got blisters on their hands.
From the boat deck, I went up to where my battle station would have been on the Oklahoma, which was above the bridge. The officer in charge, Lt. Crow, said, “Well, we don’t need any operators, but we can use some lookouts.” There were three of us up there. Lt. Crow was on my right, then me, and another man on my left. We were watching the enemy planes come in and pointing them out to the gunners.
At this time the Nevada was trying to get out of the harbor and got out to about Hospital Point when the Japanese planes started trying to sink her. Their planes were all over her like a bunch of flies at a picnic. I guess one of them couldn’t get in and saw the Maryland sitting there. We were inboard to the capsized Oklahoma and couldn’t move, so this one plane came over and dropped a bomb on us. I was standing there, watching him come in. I watched the bomb fall and it looked like it was going to land right between my legs, and all I could do was stand there and watch it come down.
It landed on the forecastle, which was about 100 feet or 150 feet away. It hit near the anchor chain and threw shrapnel all over the place. Lt. Crow, standing right next to me, was killed. A piece of shrapnel hit him in the throat. The guy standing on the other side of me got hit by a big chunk in the leg, and another piece hit me on the right side of the chest and spun me around.
There were some old .30-caliber, bolt action rifles on board the Maryland and they were being passed out to the men on deck, and men were using them to shoot at the Jap planes. One of our 5-inch/25 guns shot down a Jap plane and everybody started yelling. Everybody shooting one of those rifles thought he had done it.
The paint locker was right below where the bomb had hit, and one of the ship’s painters had been ashore the night before and had had a few too many beers. He was sleeping it off on one of the work benches when the bomb hit and he came roaring up out of one of the hatches and wanted to know who the son-of-a-bitch was who was making all the racket. When he found out, he sobered up real fast.
I happened to be looking across Ford Island towards the USS Curtiss and saw a Jap plane flying along at about twenty or twenty-five feet off the water. It was right behind the Curtiss, which was a seaplane tender. The Curtiss had one 5-inch/.50-caliber gun on its stern and they let that Jap plane have it! One of their shells hit the plane right where the engine meets the fuselage. The engine went on along by itself for about 150 yards, and the fuselage dropped into the water.
After the attack ended, we were able to tow the Maryland out from behind the Oklahoma and over to the navy yard. I stayed aboard with my buddy, Bobby Jones, for about a week.
I had a younger brother who was on the Oklahoma with me, and so did Jones. My brother, Al, had gone into the navy after me. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor I only had twenty-seven days left in my enlistment, and Al had just come aboard. I had enlisted for three years, plus two months and Al still had three years and six months to go on his four-year enlistment. Al was in the same division as me, but was a mess attendant in the sickbay at the time of the attack.
Al got off the Oklahoma, and the last time I had seen him he was climbing over the lifeline on the Maryland the same time as me. After a few days, Jones and I started wondering where our brothers might be. Somebody told us that there was a whole bunch of guys off the Oklahoma out at West Lock, with the marines. We found a motor whaleboat tied up at the dock with nobody’s name on it, so we decided that was going to be our transportation.
We got over to West Lock, which was an ammunition depot, and asked a marine on guard if he could tell us where the guys off the Oklahoma were. He pointed us to a big tent. We went back there and they were just finishing breakfast. Somebody said to my brother and the brother of my friend, “Hey, Bowden, Jones, look who’s here!” My brother dropped his tray, and we got all tangled up with each other. I helped him pick up his tray, and we went out on the grass and talked for about two hours. He was later assigned to the USS Louisville, and then went into submarines.
By the time the attack was over we really expected the Japs to come back and hit us again, but they didn’t, and we were too busy up to that point to be scared. But after it was all over I felt like a balloon that had all the air let out of it. Some guys had the shakes afterwards, but I think most of us just felt numb. It was a day I am never going to forget. Everything that happened after that was anticlimactic.