Richard Fiske

Richard Fiske (Lem Robson / S&S)

Richard I. Fiske was a 19-year-old Marine bugler aboard the battleship USS West Virginia. The morning of the Japanese attack on Hawaii, his ship was moored about 50 feet behind the Oklahoma and was the same distance in front of the Arizona.

For him, the attack was something of a family affair. His father, a chief commissaryrnan, was a crewman on the seaplane tender USS Tangier — moored on the opposite side of Ford Island Naval Air Station from the West Virginia — and his brother, an Army medic, was assigned to Schofield Barracks. This is his story.

— Jim Lea

I had just come off watch (when the attack began). I sounded chow call, and after we ate I went up to the quarterdeck and was going to help the sailor bugler sound colors.

We sounded First Call at five minutes before eight o'clock.

Then we saw some airplanes come in. They circled around in a big group coming from Schofield (Barracks, 10 miles northwest of Pearl).

There was no drill planned, but we'd been having them maybe twice a month.

There were four or five torpedo planes coming right down the channel about 15 feet off the deck. We still thought it was a drill, then.

When the torpedoes dropped, a guy who was with me named Stanley said, "We're gonna hear a thud, then we better get to our battle stations.

The next thing I remember is this hellacious loud noise and a tremendous wave came over the side of the ship and washed us to the other side. The West Virginia was 118 feet wide.

It couldn't have been more than two or three minutes later and our first sergeant came up from his office on the second deck, soaking wet. The explosion had blown him completely out of his office.

He said, "Get your asses to your battle stations. We're under attack by the Japs."

I immediately went to the bridge, my battle station. I was going to grab my bugle, but I don't know what the hell happened. I got up there and didn't have a bugle.

Capt. Bennion was there giving orders. There wasn't any power and he was shouting over the rail of the bridge.

About 8:10, we saw three bombs dropping toward our fantail (stern) but none of them hit us or the Arizona.

The fourth one hit just forward of the number two gun turret on the Arizona and the next thing we heard was this hellacious noise and we saw a big fireball. The bow of the Arizona came completely out of the water. She settled down and was one tremendous ball of fire. I never saw so much fire in my life.

The concussion blew us against the forward part of the bridge, but Capt. Bennion kept barking orders. Maybe five or six minutes later, we saw some more bombs coming down and we hit the deck. I was trying to dig a hole, but you can't do that in steel with your fingers.

The bomb hit the number two gun turret. Capt. Bennion, who had been standing up giving orders, let out a yell.

He was lying on his back and there was a tremendous hole in him. We picked him up and put him in a wire stretcher and four sailors took him down to transfer him to the Tennessee (moored inboard of the West Virginia).

The Oklahoma was right in front of us and by 8:10 she was completely over on her side.

She rolled over so slow, so very slow. And you could see the men running up and over the hull. Then the mast hit the water. Everything was in slow motion. It was the damnedest thing I ever saw in my life.

I still dream about that.

About 9:30 the exec ordered, "All unnecessary personnel abandon ship." At that particular time, I considered myself the most unnecessary guy aboard. You didn't have to tell me twice. I hit it.

Ford Island was only 50 or 60 yards away, but there was so much burning oil on the water. I think I made it in between four and five seconds.

On Ford Island we started to run across the runway to get away from all the stuff going on (at Battleship Row). This airplane came down on us and you could hear this "chi-chi-chi-chi" (of strafing fire). The plane must have been doing 250 mph. We were doing about 255.

As soon as we got to the other side, an ensign told us to go back to help the people on Battleship Row, so we ran back across the runway.

There were guys swimming around in circles by the Arizona. Their eyes were so full of oil they couldn't see what they were doing.

Twenty-five or 30 of us dove in and got most the guys who were still alive out. We went back later in the morning and pulled some of the dead up on shore.

About 1 p.m., they gave us West Virginia Marines machine guns and took us by truck over to the admiral's house to guard it.

Sometime that night, our gunnery sergeant came by and told us to be on the lookout because the Japanese had landed at Barbers Point (Naval Air Station, about 6 miles west of Pearl) and at Waikiki. (Editor's note: Both rumors were widespread, but false.)

Two days later we had services for our captain and I had the privilege of sounding Taps. That was the most beautiful Taps I ever sounded in my life.

My dad and I went up to Schofield about the 22nd or 23rd to find out what happened to my brother. He was okay, but that was the only time he ever talked about the war.

He said he worked over 72 hours straight and never saw so many wounded in his life. He finally collapsed going into one of the operating rooms to help out. He was lying in a hallway and a couple of corpsmen thought he was dead. They picked him up and moved him into the morgue.

He said he slept about 24 hours and it was the best rest he ever got. Nobody bothered him. The only thing was when he woke up he was real cold.

Most of the West Virginia Marines stayed with the ship. We stood our watches but had to work, too, removing bodies and helping to raise the ship. Even though most of the ship was under water, our galley was operating and we were eating corn bread and beans and stuff like that.

We finally got all the bodies removed with the exception of three. We got them out when we went into dry dock. We knew they were aboard.

From Dec. 7 until the 23rd we could hear them tapping every night, but we couldn't get to them. At night when we'd stand perimeter guard it was awful. Nobody wanted to get the post between the admiral's house and the administration building (on Ford Island) because you'd have to pass by the ship and hear the "tap ... tap ... tap."

It ended just before Christmas.

We got the ship into dry dock June 13, 1942, and drained the water out. About 4:30 p.m., we opened up the last watertight compartment, six decks down. The forward pump room.

We found them by the forward generator. Three sailors. They'd written on the bulkhead that they'd lived until the 23rd of December.

That's another thing I can't forget.

Sometimes, when I've been out (at the Arizona Memorial Visitors Center) and there've been too many memories, I'll go home and I can still hear that "tap ... tap ... tap."

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now