N.C. veteran recounts horrors of Pearl Harbor experience
PINEHURST, N.C. — Roy "Swede" Boreen had just downed a big pancake breakfast and was meeting a shipmate in the payroll office of the USS Oklahoma when the the call to battlestations came.
The 21-year-old sailor ran to the porthole in time to see a Kate bomber emblazoned with the rising sun drop the first of nine torpedoes that would eventually sink his ship.
"I saw the pilot's face, and he was grinning like a 'possum eating you-know-what," Boreen recalled of the first moments of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Sitting at his kitchen table in his Pinehurst home, with diagrams of his former ship spread in front of him, the 93-year-old Boreen recounted his experiences on that harrowing Sunday morning 72 years ago.
Boreen, a warm man whose energy masks his age, speaks with authority, rattling off numbers and statistics about the attack from memory. Occasionally, he refers to a binder full of notes, which he began compiling in the year after the attack and has updated through the years.
He lifted a cap bearing the USS Oklahoma from the back of his chair and put it on proudly as he began to talk about the attack that sank it.
After the torpedo hit the ship, he ran down to his battle station on the ship's third deck and began closing watertight doors between compartments.
"Just as I was slamming down the last dog on this one door, another torpedo hit a fuel tank, sprung the door, and I was completely covered in oil," he said.
Boreen said he wiped the oil from his eyes and turned around, feeling the ship beginning to tilt. He was alone, and water was beginning to come down the ladder hatch, which he climbed to the second deck. There, he found two of his shipmates, one clutching a bloody stomach.
Above them, sailors were getting ready to close the hatch to the main deck, but Boreen yelled up to them to wait.
Believing the ship was only going to tilt so far, his shipmates didn't follow him to the main deck and were trapped. Boreen discovered later they were among the more than 400 members of the ship's crew who died in the attack.
The ship had tilted so far that once Boreen made it to the main deck, he had to climb up to cross to the Oklahoma's starboard side. He made it to the blister protruding from the side of the ship and sat down.
"I looked up, and I could see these bombers coming over like a flock of ducks," he said, making a "V" with his hands. He watched one of the planes drop a bomb on the USS Arizona.
"That battleship just went up, flames and everything, 400 to 500 feet in the air," Boreen said.
As he was sitting on the side of his ship, he caught sight of a Japanese Zero fighter plane coming along to Battleship Row, so he jumped into the water and hid behind a large mooring camel that separated two of the ships.
"A lot of my shipmates that had come up with me from the third deck were either in the water or they were sitting on the hull of the Okie," he said. From behind the mooring, he said, he watched the Zero hit them all.
"I just started crying," he said.
Boreen hit the water at 8:04 a.m., just nine minutes after the attack began, according to the watch he was wearing, which stopped during the attack.
Boreen was able to climb on board the USS Maryland, where the sailors opened up their lockers to him, giving him towels to wipe off the oil that had blown on him and a new uniform to wear.
Then he sat down for a cup of coffee and broke down.
"I just couldn't hold back the tears thinking about that," he said of watching his shipmates fall under the guns of the Japanese fighter.
Boreen said he was familiar with most of the men on the Oklahoma because he worked in the pay office.
"Everybody knew Swede, and I knew everybody else," he said.
Boreen said he was aboard the Maryland when the second wave of planes attacked, but he doesn't remember that part of the morning.
After his harrowing experience at Pearl Harbor, Boreen continued his career in the Navy and retired after a 21-year career.
Boreen's service fulfilled a dream of his father, a Swedish immigrant who served in his native country's navy aboard a four-masted schooner and dreamed that one of his sons would one day serve in the Navy.
After retiring, Boreen worked as an engineering assistant in the private sector and spent many vacations playing golf in North Carolina. When he retired from his civilian career, Boreen and his wife moved to Pinehurst in 1982, where they were active in the country club and local golf courses almost immediately.
The walls of Boreen's Pinehurst home are lined with photos, memories of his time in the Navy and since: Boreen riding as the grand marshal in the local Fourth of July parade; encounters with people he admires, such as astronaut and fellow Navy veteran Alan Shepard; a poster-sized portrait of Boreen in his white dress uniform; and a 1943 shot of Boreen waving a war bond as he looks up from the ladder he climbed to escape the sinking Oklahoma, staged after the ship was recovered from the harbor.
As a survivor of that infamous day, Boreen feels it's important to share his story with others.
The stopped watch he was wearing that day has been displayed as part of a Pearl Harbor exhibit at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Boreen sometimes speaks in schools to students who are old enough to appreciate what he and his shipmates went through.
"I want to pay tribute and homage to my shipmates that were killed that day," Boreen said. "All that were killed that day."