USS California Survivor Robert Boulton Remembers December 7, 1941

January 15, 2020

[Editor's note: The following are the recollections of USS California survivor Robert Boulton. We are reproducing them exactly as written. Please be advised that some of the descriptions are graphic, and reflect the horrors of the events of December 7, 1941 and the days that followed. We are extremely grateful to Mr. Boulton and his family for generously sharing his story and accompanying images.]

Saturday, December 6, 1941, found me in the duty section. I had the 1200 to 1600 day watch. Although a second alert because of an unidentified sub had been called a day or so before, we did not change our normal routine. I might also say that I didn't see anything to alert us during the nights that I pulled boom patrol. Any way the watch on the bridge that Saturday was very busy but was able to handle it with the help of some of the men that were off duty. came off watch a little after 1600 in the afternoon, went below. I took a shower and changed into a clean uniform. Our uniform still included white shorts. After chow, which consisted of cold cuts and iced tea, I bought a gee-dunk at the store and took in a movie on the quarter deck. Once that was over, I turned in right away so that I might get a couple of hours sleep before taking the watch again at 0000 midnight.

It would soon be Sunday, December 7, 1941. Little did I realize that that day would be the longest day of my life.
I was awakened at twenty minutes to twelve, midnight, to relieve the signal watch. The man shaking me out of my slumber was C.E. Sharman Seaman IIc USNR (our ship cartoonist) who was completing his 2000 to 2400 watch.
"O.K. O.K., I'm awake," I said and climbed out of my sack, which was the middle one in a tier of three.
As usual, the air was so hot and thick that I felt like I should chew it instead of breathing it. I noticed that the man above had re-routed my wind sail or air deflector to himself. We all fought over the lone air vent so it did not surprise me. I would correct the situation when I came off watch at 0400.

It did not take me long to slip into the uniform of the day because it only consisted of white shorts, skivvy top, white hat, socks and black low cut shoes. I might say here that in the forty-five or so years since the attack, I have never seen this uniform used in any Hollywood or T.V. movie. We have been pictured in everything from dress whites to dress blues. After the attack, we never used the uniform again. I was told that that was because the men suffered too many flash burns. I should add here that burns can be caused by the back flash of our own guns just as well as from bombs etc.

I stuffed my cigarette pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes into my skivvy sleeve, checked to see if the rest of the watch was ready and proceeded on my way up to the bridge past the ever sleeping storekeeper.

Perhaps my favorite part of taking the watch in a hot climate occurred when I first stepped out of the hatch onto the weather deck the sweet fresh air felt so good after the heavy, hot, oppressive air from below decks.

I made my way to the bridge by stepping over the sleeping men lying on the deck and climbed two zigzag ladders leading from the boat deck to the signal bridge. Upon reaching the bridge, I immediately walked over to the mud pot. That was always a priority for any of us before relieving the watch. After filling my mug and lighting a cigarette, I sat down on the flag bag until I was awake enough to go through the watch relieving routine that took place before I could assume the responsibility of standing watch.

Since I was the on-coming supervisor, I had to relieve the off going supervisor, M.D. (Penny) Penhollow, SM 2jC, USN. "O.K. What’s the dope, Penny?" I asked. "It's been pretty quiet tonight, there have been no ships moving about," he said while he finished his last cup of mud. We both walked over to the port side of the bridge. He pointed to the old minelayer Oglala (4200 ton) and said, "SOPA (senior officer present afloat) is Furlong (Rear Admiral W.R. Furlong)." He informed me that the Nevada had the military guard and again repeated that no ships had been moving about during his watch. I would refresh my mind on all of what he was telling me later during my watch when I relieved him by reading his notes in the signalman's watch standing log. The watch had to know where every major vessel was located. And we especially had to know where every flagship was. We also had to report any ship movements to the quarterdeck. Very little movement took place after dark and to my memory, no ships stood in or out of the harbor itself during my watch through the submarine net or boom.

Penny continued, "Both the skipper (Captain Bunkley)and the admiral (Vice Admiral Pye) are ashore. 01' Eagle-eye is the duty first class. (First class petty officers did not stand night watches on the California but they were on call). That's about it Reb." By now the mud had cleared the sleep from my body and I jokingly came to attention, clicked my heels, shot him a crisp salute and said, "You are relieved, sir." With this Penny wasted no time and dived down the ladders to his own sweaty sack on the third deck where he would instantly fall asleep until reveille. He would be back on duty at 0800.

R.H. (Rebel) Boulton, SMJ/c USN was now the California's signal supervisor of the watch. I was a senior signalman 3rd class, acting 2nd class. I had passed my exam but could not as yet pin on the new rate. I was serving my fourth year in the Navy. Besides myself, there were five or six other men in the watch. I cannot recall who they all were except for J.R. Mitchell, Sea l/c USNR. I believe the first man (assistant) was A.L. Shoemaker SMJ/c USN.
The time was a little after 0000 (midnight). I removed my white hat, located my pipe which I always hid on the bridge overhead and lit up. After reading the watch log I walked completely around the bridge several times checking for any ship movements. Just as I returned to the desk, the yardarm blinker lights.

It was now 0100 and the entire harbor came to life in a blaze flashing 00, 00, 00: the " All Ships Present" signal. Had this happened at any time other than on the hour, I would have become very excited because it would have probably meant, "ALL SHIPS STAND BY FOR A VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE" It's too bad that it was not the real thing calling for a RED ALERT. As it was, I knew it was nothing more than a Morse blinker drill (or test) for the signal strikers which were held each hour on the hour during the night.

Those lights were a cluster (5 or 6) of long slender bulbs mounted inside of a weather proofed glass shield and were located on the end of each yardarm. All battleships, carriers and cruisers at the time had four lights while destroyers and smaller ships had two. The zero zero signal was made by sending the Morse code equivalent to zero zero which was five dashes sent twice in rapid succession. That was done aboard the California by using any one of six to eight keys located at various positions about the bridge. Those keys were like the ones used in radio but were waterproofed. The blinker drill itself was made up of many groups of five letter code. It was an excellent method in the training of new men and also kept the older men sharp.

It never failed to amaze me each time the drill was held in the dead of the night. What appeared to be a fleet of sleeping ships suddenly exploded with a brilliant display of blinking lights. The entire harbor would light up. One thing for sure, the signalmen on watch were very much awake or at least some of them were. I have wondered many times since 1941 about what the Japanese spies who no doubt were monitoring these innocent drills thought of them and were they especially curious at night.

It was customary in those days on the mid-watch (when visual traffic was light) to dog the watch—that is to allow half of the men to sleep on station while the other half stayed alert. The first man would take one half and I would take the other. With this in mind, I dogged the watch. I usually would take one of the wool signal flags (much larger than a king size blanket), cover myself due to the early morning chill, and lie down on the canvas weather cover on the flag bag and sleep an hour or so.

I always took the alert watch from 0200 to 0400 so that I would be wide awake when the 0400 to 0800 supervisor relieved me. I also wanted to be sure a fresh pot of hot mud would be ready for him and his men. However, on that night, I did not crap out until after 0100 because I was backing up one of the strikers with the blinker drill.
I do not remember who the supervisor was that relieved me. I believe that it was W.A. Fletcher SM2/eUSN. The only man that I know was in that watch was Papoose Evans Sea l/e our Indian lad.

Once the on-coming watch took the responsibility, I beat a hasty retreat to my sticky sack below, rearranged the wind sail so the air would blow on me, and went to sleep. That would be the last time I would ever use my sack. In only a few hours, it would be under water, that and everything else I owned.

One hour, forty-five minutes later, 0545, was reveille. The infernal bugle was always on time with perhaps the worst sound in the Navy for someone that had just stood a mid-watch. It seemed as if I had just turned in. The mud taste was still in my mouth from my night watch. The compartment lights were turned on but we didn't stir. We wanted to soak up more of our comfortable sacks. We did this until we heard the MAA coming down the passageway banging on the iron bunks with a dog wrench and yelling, "Reveille, up and at 'em, reveille." BANG, BANG, BANG.

It was customary on Sunday mornings for all hands to rise and shine at reveille until sweepers and chow had taken place. Afterwards we could hit the sack again and stay all day if we wanted to. That is, as long as we did not have the watch.

I put on my shower slippers and picked up my ditty bag which contained my toilet articles, a towel, some fresh skivvies and a bucket with a hunk of salt water soap in it. Before closing my locker, I shaved with an electric Shave master and then joined the parade of skivvy clad men that were heading for the petty officer's wash room located on the deck above.

All petty officers and seamen excluding chiefs washed their own clothes aboard the California. There was a laundry but we seldom used it because of its expense. We did use the dry cleaning shop for our liberty and inspection dress blue uniforms.

Robert Boulton in Honolulu

The author in happier times

There were not enough basins for all of us so we had to line up and wait our turn in front of them. I always made sure that I did not get into the same line with a certain yeoman in front of me. This guy took as much time as any woman with his appearance. He would clip his nose hairs, eyebrows and admire himself from every angle in the mirror, grin and flirt with himself. It was enough to make me want to flush him overboard.

After using a basin, we filled our buckets with fresh water and heated it by putting the bucket under a live steam nozzle for a few seconds. We then squatted down and washed out our dirty uniforms (whites were easily soiled) and rinsed them in cold salt water. Last of all we took our turn at one of several showers, put on our fresh skivvy shorts and slippers and returned to our compartment. After hanging the wet clothes on the overhead pipes to dry, we put on clean uniforms and went to morning chow.

Sunday morning breakfast was never something to boast about so I had some coffee (only signalmen brew mud), tried to eat a piece of cornbread and went back down below to turn in until noon chow when I would make up for not eating breakfast. I had finished all my watches for the day and now rated liberty. What I would have done that day, I do not know. Most likely, I would have spent the afternoon writing a few letters and loafing around the signal bridge.

After entering our compartment I noticed J.R. Mitchell (Mitch) sitting on a lower bunk reading a magazine. Since I wanted to read it next, I said to him, “How’s for the mag next Mitch?” and sat down beside him to wait. The bunk we were using was midship in the signal compartment and ran athwart ship (widthwise). In front of us, and located on the bulkhead, the general alarm bell (we did not have a Klaxon horn) and a P.A. speaker.

Suddenly, a little before 0800, the bell started to clang. Mitch and I looked at each other but continued to sit there and wait for the P.A. speaker to advise us about what drill was to take place. It never came. We began to swear, "What kind of Navy would have a drill on Sunday morning?"

Mitch gave me the magazine. Then, taking my time (I was mad), I went to my number two locker on the port side beside an ammo conveyer belt to stow it. As I opened the locker there was a loud muffled explosion that shook the ship. It felt like an earthquake. Some of the contents inside my locker fell out. We were not hit yet, but I believe the explosion was from the first bombing of the Ford Island Air Station which was to starboard of us, or perhaps it was one of the battleships astern of us.

My first thought was that we had had a powder magazine accident aboard. I had heard this had happened several times before aboard other ships.

The general alarm bell continued to clang, "Perhaps it is fire and rescue," I thought, "but why don't they tell us what it is?"

I became more than concerned when I noticed some of the men pouring down the hatches with stunned looks on their faces, they were on their way to their GQ stations below. I finally decided that the drill was general quarters and I immediately headed double time to my station, which was the starboard, forward 12 inch signal flood light on the signal bridge.

Due to my slow reaction time, I found my way to the bridge blocked because many of the watertight doors and hatches were either closed or starting to close. I could not get above the protected deck in the normal way. I had to double back several times and criss-cross through each deck several times before I arrived topside.

It all becomes a little foggy from here on—I believe that I came up through the conning tower but it is more likely that I came up through the superstructure as I first came out to daylight and the starboard signal bridge from the flag plotting room.

As I came out of the door, the first thing that I heard was strange machine gun fire and high pitched plane engines. Then I noticed our mud pot lying on the deck with its grounds and mud all over the red waxed linoleum. Many men were already on the bridge.

Suddenly, E.C. Ritchie SM1/e-&Sff grabbed me and pulled me down beside the signal searchlight platform and said, "They are the Japanese. I always said they would attack us here." At that moment a Jap plane screamed over our number three turret and its rear gunner sprayed the ship with machine gun fire. He appeared to be hand cranking his gun. Low flying dark gray green planes with red meat ball insignias appeared to be everywhere. They were all flying at maximum speed. Dark exhaust smoke tailed each of them. They had us at their mercy.

The shock left me momentarily nauseated and weak in the knees. From my crouched position behind the wind shields, I noticed my pipe (that I had used only a few hours ago) lying broken on the deck.

Earl Roberts, the only other man aboard from my home town, asked me what was happening as he passed me on his way to his station on the bridge above. I was too confused to answer him. He was killed at his post.

If we had had any warning whatsoever, we would not have suffered from much shock. As it was, our shock did not last very long for most of us. I tried to raise and signal the water tank signal station that handled the traffic for CinCPAC (Commander in Chief Pacific), Admiral Kimmel. For some reason I could not raise them. In fact, when I looked through the long-glass, I could not see any sign of life up there even though all of their halyards were full of flags. I also noticed at this time when I moved the glass beyond the signal tower that a clean hole had been shot through one of the tall smoke stacks that belonged to the Navy yard. Obviously, that was done by one of our ship's five inch anti-aircraft guns while shooting at a low flying plane.

Confusion was everywhere. Admiral Furlong originated some flag signals and as I recall so did Admiral Kimmel. Admiral Pye was not aboard at the moment.

The air was filled with flying objects, and because of this, I decided to go into the flag conning tower. I did not succeed because two excited flag commanders were in my way and I witnessed them arguing over which of them would enter the conn first. They were actually pushing each other. Later on I did go inside but found the place deserted.

One of the flag signals that was displayed aboard the California was for "ALL SHIPS IN HARBOR SORTIE." It was originated by Admiral Furlong on the Oglala who was still SOPA. Another was "ZERO FOX TWO" which was a visual call for CinCPAC located on the water tank. This signal was snapped on by C.E. Sharman sea. l/c and hoisted by J.A. Gewalt SM J/c USNR v-6. That was the lone flag display that is shown in the picture of the California that has been published many times. I have tried over the years to read the various signals that were shown in the photographs of the attack that day, but am unable to do so because all of the photos are black and white. A signalman must have color to read the signals accurately. I cannot recall if our watch recorded any of the signals in the log or not. I have never read at any time what the meanings of the signals on the ships might have been. I assume some might have been "EMERGENCY VICTOR" (Enemy Aircraft Attacking) or "GEORGE QUEEN" (General Quarters). Perhaps, "I AM ON FIRE" or call signs from ships that had lost all electrical power trying to report their damage. In all of that confusion signalmen all over the harbor were doing their jobs, trying to communicate.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Japanese knew almost as much as did signalmen about where each ship was located. They knew exactly where the California was and also where the Pennsylvania was supposed to be. The enemy pilots must have been disappointed when they made their torpedo run toward ten-ten dock where the Pennsy usually was, but instead found it in dry dock. When they discovered this, they changed to another target at the dock. That was the minelayer Oglala tied up alongside of the cruiser Helena. The torpedo aimed for this ship went underneath her and hit the cruiser instead. The Helena was damaged but did not sink, but the concussion pushed in the plates of the Oglala and sank her. For a while, it looked as if she was going to turn over on the Helena but the crews slipped all lines and separated the ships by moving the ship aft. Shortly thereafter the doomed ship capsized. We commented afterwards that she died of pure fright.

Most of the damage to the battleships was done within the first ten minutes of the attack (0755-0805). The California was the last to be hit. It all happened so fast that it is difficult for me to describe just what took place or when. My memory is only in "spots."

Explosion of USS Arizona (BB-39)

Explosion of USS Arizona

When the Arizona blew up, our bridge was peppered with falling unburnt powder and other debris. Several of us that were standing on our port wing looking aft watched unbelievingly as the Oklahoma capsized in what seemed to be about 10 to 15 minutes. About the same time we saw the dark green planes with torpedoes attached under their fuselage flying down from the boat landing and dropped a torpedo spread for us. When this happened, we all beat it to the starboard wing knowing we were next and would probably blow up like the Arizona or capsize like the Okie.

After launching their torpedoes, the planes still trailing black exhaust smoke, passed us and strafed us with their rear gunners. Their gunners appeared to be standing up in their cockpits.

When the torpedoes hit, there were just some muffled booms and a couple of heavy shakes. Immediately afterwards the ship continued to shudder like she did when she was in a heavy sea. Then she started to settle by the stern and list to port. It never entered my mind that my ship was sinking.

The 10,000 ton cruiser St. Louis appeared to be coming alongside and some said she was going to take off the flag personnel that was still on board. However, she was only maneuvering in order to stand out through the channel entrance. She was one of the few ships that was never hit.

I learned later that a gunners mate, C.W. Dampier (aboard her from my home town) saw me on the bridge through his turret periscope and reassured my parents that I had survived even though the Navy had reported me killed in action. Dampier couldn't report my survival until a few anxious days after the Navy had informed my family of my death. Today, some 45 years later, I can look back and remember that I was one of North Carolina's first war dead in World War II.

Admiral Pye came onto the signal flag bridge in civilian clothes with his marine orderly holding his uniform. Other flag officers were also present, one was the Chief of Staff. The admiral, now SOPA, started in right away to originate many flag signals. At times, all of our halyards were full. (A flagship always makes the same signal on both the port and starboard yardarms. This is so the signal can be visible to all the surrounding fleet).

I do not know when the admiral's flag left the ship but I do know they went to the submarine base and did not move aboard another ship. I don't know who became SOPA when our admiral left. It might have been Admiral Furlong again but his ship, Oglala, was sunk. It could not have been Rear Admiral Kidd because he was killed when the Arizona blew up.

Our ship began to list even more alarmingly to port and we kept a close watch on the inclinometer located midship in the solarium. I kept thinking about the Okie capsizing.

I then noticed for the first time that some of our guns were firing. I guess that they had been firing all along but I hadn't heard them in the confusion. There were two, 3 inch 50 caliber AA guns on the navigation bridge above the signal bridge. I do not recall that these guns were firing even though one was almost over my head. Remember that when all the ships in a small area like Pearl Harbor were firing, there is an awful lot of noise.

I began to try to receive a light message from the old four stack light cruiser Raleigh with the starboard forward 12" floodlight. Chief Pappy Yost was my recorder. I had a lot of trouble trying to read the Raleigh's signal across the Ford Island air strip that was in between because of smoke from both the cruiser and the island. I was also distracted by wild Jap planes flying in line of vision. They actually appeared to land on the air strip and then take off without stopping during their strafing runs. They all were trailing black smoke as if they had been hit. But damn it, that was not so. Later we said that the black smoke must have been because of the cheap gasoline that the Japs were using (refined from rice).

Robert Boulton

Picture of the author with memorabilia

While I concentrated, trying to read the signal, I heard Pappy say, "Here they come for us, boys." I turned my head and saw Pappy looking up. I did not see the bombers but I did see the bombs falling. They appeared to be floating down instead of at an angle. I was soon to find out the floating look meant that they were coming straight at us. I believe that there was a cluster of three bombs (these bombs were actually 16 inch armor piercing shells with fins welded on them). One hit the upper deck on the starboard side a little inboard of the life lines. It was just forward and down two weather decks from where I was standing with my signal light. The explosion that it made was just to the left of my vision of the Raleigh. It threw up a narrow sheet of flame and smoke through the small neat, almost square hole that it made in the 21/2 inch thick teak wood deck. It had passed through that deck then through the main deck and exploded on the protected 2nd deck (a protected deck was one of extra strength designed to protect the ship's vital machinery below). The concussion was ear splitting and it caused the ship to shake so violently that I was thrown against the solarium. Broken glass from the solarium, falling debris and even some shrapnel from our own AA guns littered the bridge. The sky above was full of ack-ack smoke. At times, it looked as if someone had dumped a huge can of trash from a high altitude. Some of that trash was probably from disintegrating enemy planes which had been hit.

The ship had several near misses by bombs about this time which shook us up again. In fact, she never seemed to quit shaking. A dud was reported to have hit on the quarter-deck, but did no damage. However, the live bomb just mentioned set the ship on fire and I lost power to my signal light. I never did receive the Raleigh's message nor do I recall the little part I did receive. She may have been trying to report her damage to our flag. I became deaf because of the explosion. I am still hard of hearing, particularly in my left ear, even today.

I do not remember any more visual activity (signaling) that morning on board the California. Perhaps there was some but I did not get the word or see any, and I couldn't hear. Oddly enough, even though the ship was on fire and sinking, I was no longer frightened.

I remember that at about this time I witnessed some men leading other men up to the bridge where they were made to lie down in the solarium and were covered with blankets. They did not appear to be wounded. Perhaps they were in shock.

With nothing to do since the flag had left the ship, I just watched the action and looked for signals. I walked forward of the conning tower and noticed that the gun crews in both number one and number two turrets had tried to train their 14-inch guns to starboard in order to counter-balance and help correct the port list. Number two turret did succeed but number one lost power about half way and did not quite make it. I could not see anything from the starboard side of the bridge because the fire was out of control and the smoke made it impossible to see beyond the bridge wind screens.

I walked over to the smoke-free port side and was happy to see the Nevada underway and heading out of the channel. She was steaming with her bow down in the water caused by an earlier hit. Her bridge was completely covered with flame and smoke. I could not figure out how her signalmen or her helmsman could see. I noticed that she had gotten underway so fast that no one had thought to shift her colors to the underway location which was supposed to be on her gaff on the mainmast. It looked odd to see a U.S. naval ship underway with her colors flying from her stern. It was the first and last time I ever saw such a thing. I went forward to our conning tower again to watch her proceed toward the channel. Jap planes were concentrating on her, trying to sink her and block the channel.

About this time the destroyer Shaw blew up. She was just behind the Nevada and in a floating dry dock. I think one of the bombs that was meant for the "Old Ned" hit the Shaw instead. I could feel the heat even from where I was standing. Our bridge was again peppered with falling debris. It seemed as if everything was either sunk, sinking, on fire, or blowing up. To the left of the Shaw, the destroyers Downes and Cassin were also burning in dry dock. Oil covered water astern of us was aflame and threatened to damage us further.

I've read about men who experienced the sounds, sights and smells of battle. Well, I couldn't hear and after awhile my sense of smell was numb as well. But I could see. I saw a lot. Too much. I'll never forget.

While I continued nonchalantly viewing the action, we took a near miss of our port bow. The geyser of water soaked me to the skin. I did not know until much later when the ship was raised and moved into dry dock that she was damaged slightly with that miss. I recall seeing two large holes caused by torpedoes and a third smaller one near the port bow. I was told that that third hole was due to the near miss. I have never read anything that ever mentioned the third hole. However, I will continue to stand by my memory of that third hole.

I might add that the Nevada continued on her way but was ordered to beach herself so as not to block the channel entrance. We heard later that a chief quartermaster was conning the ship through her blazing efforts to reach the sea. He was also the one who backed her onto the beach at Hospital Point. I have read recently the Navy has given credit to a commissioned officer for that deed. Why in the hell cannot this country tell history as it was. Or at least wait until all of the veterans that witnessed and lived history are dead.

Our own ship was sending up billows of hot smoke from the starboard side. I left the conning tower and walked aft to the bridge. On the way I noticed that we still had one flag signal flying from our port out-board yardarm. I thought at one time since that day that the signal was a call for CinCPAC (OF2) but now I may be more correct by calling it "CAST BAKER DESIGNATE". It appears to be a flag, then a burgee which is a swallow-tailed flag and a pennant which might be the one called Designate. In any event, it does not make sense to me nor would I swear to the names that I have just mentioned without full color and view.

I found the bridge covered with black smoke, too. I was surprised to see no one there, nor in the solarium. I had not heard the abandon ship order. And since I was out of sight of the conning tower, no one told me otherwise. By now the ship had a heavy port list and the fires were completely out of control. I decided that everyone must be abandoning ship. I left the bridge by the starboard zig-zag ladders to the boat deck and then out and down to the fo'c'sul where the bomb had entered the ship.

I prepared to jump into the water by the number 2 turret on the starboard side. I noticed that the casemate doors appeared to be melting from the fire. Most likely it was not the steel that was melting but instead, twenty years of dried paint, layer after layer.

Black fuel oil covered the water. Some of it was on fire and it was sweeping toward me. Quite a few of the men were leaving the ship on the fo'c'sul by crawling down the mooring lines to the concrete quay and then swimming to Ford Island.

After feeling the ship bob up and down a few more times, I decided that it would be quicker to get off by jumping where I was because the mooring lines were full of men. Before doing so, I remember debating with myself trying to decide if I should remove the G.Q. gear I was wearing because I figured that it would weigh me down. I removed my WWI doughboy helmet, my elephant-snout gas mask of the same vintage, and my life jacket which was probably just as old. I stepped over the lifelines and jumped feet first as far out as possible in order to miss the ship's inch armor belt (which by now was more exposed because of the port list).

USS Milwaukee in dry dock at Pearl Harbor

USS Milwaukee in dry dock at Pearl Harbor

My abandon ship procedure was not the one I had been drilled on for over three years. It was every man for himself. I don't remember seeing a commissioned officer at any time during this period nor did I look for one. I am sure that most of us had only one thought, "Get off, she is going to blow up."

I hit the water at exactly 10:10 A.M. My new wrist watch stopped at that moment. I had only purchased it the day before as a Christmas present to myself. It never entered my mind that I was a bad swimmer and had come close to not making it through boot camp in 1938 because I could not swim the required 100 yards. I merely took a bearing on Ford Island and started swimming. I experienced no trouble bypassing the burning oil and most of the slicks. Some oil though, I had to swim through. It covered me completely. It coated me completely in black and made me slightly nauseated. Sometime during my swim, I lost my shoes. My once white uniform shorts stuck to my body like glue and my hair was pasted to my head.

When I reached the island, I could not get a firm enough grip on the oily, algae covered rocks in order to pull myself out. A marine, seeing my problem, tried to help me. First he passed the end of his rifle down so he could pull me up. This did not work as my oily hands could not hold on and the rifle sight cut both of my hands. Then he backed part way down the rocks and let me grasp one of his feet. That was successful. When I reached the top, he took off one way and I took off toward a crowd of other survivors.

I assisted the marines for a while with an old WWI Lewis 30 caliber machine gun. My job was to pass the ammo drums to them. For protection, we were using a ditch for a new water main. Later, I assisted some air station men remove aircraft cameras out of their storage building. We spread them over a nearby field so a direct hit would not destroy all of them.

I recall an aid station had been set up on the shore where the corpsmen were treating mostly burns. I could not tell who was burned because all of us were black from the oil. The docs were slapping some kind of salve on the burned men. I saw one sailor being treated whose black arm flesh rolled up over a doc's hand. Bloody meat was exposed as he applied the salve to it. One doc looked at me and I just shook my head and said, "No, I'm OK."

The island shore was crowded with the crew from the California. I recall seeing Chuck Sharman and Mitch Mitchell. They were yelling at me. I signaled them by short-arm semaphore that I could not hear. I noticed several officers waving their arms and shouting at us. I learned later that the officers were trying to make the crowd of men scatter and spread out so that if the ship blew up, we would have a better chance of surviving.

A short time later, I discovered an old car that appeared to have been cut down into a pick-up truck. It was a 1930 Pontiac. I tried to start it but could not get it started until I had traced the trouble to the carburetor. I find it hard to realize today that I was doing all of this while my own ship and much of the battle line was sinking just a few hundred yards behind my back.

In the late afternoon some of us were rounded up and returned to the ship to fight the fire and man various stations. How I got aboard escapes me. All signalmen in the group went to the signal bridge and took up the watch. The ship never lost the watch again. Some of us were on duty night and day. The list had increased to such a degree that it was difficult to walk the bridge athwart ship. We missed our ever present pot of fresh hot mud. I did not have any noon or evening chow nor did I know where to find any. The galley I used to raid in better times appeared to be burning judging from the smoke pouring out of its skylight.

Many yard craft, tugs etc. were alongside pumping water on the fire. Three minesweepers pushed against our bow for several hours and three others went behind the bow on the starboard side, put out lines and pulled. One of these was the Vireo. Everyone was doing everything possible in order to keep the California from capsizing.

At sundown I stood in front of the conning tower and I watched the sun as it set. I was exhausted and very much concerned because of all of the rumors being passed around regarding the Japanese landing troops at various locations on the island.

Thanks to the yard craft, the fires were under control. Rescue parties started to bring some of the dead out and put them on the fo'c'sul. By now I could hear again but only with my right ear. I wrote on a piece of paper, "Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. What a day. Reb Boulton" and dropped it in a voice tube thinking that perhaps someone in the stateside Navy yard might find it during the ship's overhaul if she ever should get there.

Shortly after dusk, we (signalmen) were advised that friendly planes from the carrier Enterprise would be flying in with all running lights (navigation) on. I saw them very clearly as they flew in low over the channel entrance and over the beached Nevada. Suddenly someone opened fire on them (I believe it was our ship). All A. A. guns had been manned all day after the two attacks that morning. We didn't know if the Japs would come back again to finish us off.

The opening shot started a chain reaction until everyone was firing. The night sky was full of brilliant tracers as it was sprayed in all directions. Some of these tracers came as low as our bridge level, and we took cover behind the wind screens. I began to think that with all the gunfire, that perhaps the planes might be, after all, another Jap trick. Our 50 caliber machine guns in the main and foretops were making up for lost time. Some of the planes fell in flames into the cane fields around the harbor and burned for a long time. One pilot, Ensign Brown, bailed out and almost landed on the deck of the minesweeper Vireo. He was rushed to the hospital where he died. Captain Bunkley came on the bridge, sat down on the starboard flag bag and said, "They are our own planes." He said this several times and appeared to be weeping. Since this was the first positive identification that I heard that they were our own, I stopped cheering the shot down planes and became very sad as I continued to watch them explode and burn.

Sometime around 0100 in the morning, most of the ship's fires were put out. However, we could see each other very clearly on the bridge because of the light caused by some of the ships that were still burning. The Arizona was the brightest.

I remember that some of the off duty signalmen wrapped themselves with signal flags and went to sleep in the solarium. I do not recall if I spent the rest of the night aboard the ship or not. I think perhaps it may have been on the island because that morning I was awakened by someone who gave me a Springfield rifle along with some ammunition. I recall that I was sleeping in a ditch. It may have been the water main ditch that I helped the marines fire their Lewis gun. Anyway the rifle was no good to anyone because it did not have a bolt to fire it. Now why they did this has always been a mystery to me. Perhaps the Navy thought we would become trigger happy like the night fight when we shot down our own planes and would start shooting at each other all over again. Even if the rifle had worked, it would have not done any good because I could not hit anything anyway.

I have always felt guilty over the years that I dogged the watch the early morning before the attack. If I had not, perhaps one of us might have seen something to alert the fleet.

The next day, December 8th, I was freezing cold and still black with sticky oil. The weather was cloudy with some rain. Some of the ships were still smoking, and it hung low all over the harbor. I have been informed since that being cold is a sign of shock. My first meal in 24 hours consisted of nothing but raisins taken from large cans that had washed up on the beach of Ford Island.

The author during Fleet Problem XXI, April 1940

The author during Fleet Problem XXI, April 1940

I found myself back aboard ship the same day with the duty. By now she had cooled down enough so the rescue parties could bring out more of the 98 men that were killed. Many were brought out of the starboard hatch near #2 turret. This hatch was just forward of where the bomb entered the upper deck on the fo'c'sul. I stood on the forward starboard side of the signal bridge and looked down on the pitiful sight below. Most of the dead were charred black and baked stiff in whatever position the men had attained when the bomb exploded. I had to turn away when they were laid down on the deck and covered with white G.I. blankets. Some of the dead appeared to make the blankets stick up. Their stiff arms, sticking out straight in front of them, looked as if some of them were reaching out for something. Perhaps, as they died, they were reaching out for their mothers.

Our deck crew took wire cable and the ship's anchor chains and wrapped them around the concrete quays in order to prevent the ship from sliding into deeper water. Routine salvage work started right away using many civilian and Navy divers. Many yard craft was still alongside pushing and pulling trying to save the ship. In a couple of days, though, our old lady gave up the ghost and sank. She continued to settle in the mud until only her superstructure was above water. The signal bridge was the first level that wasn't submerged. The port side of the bridge was only a few feet above the water.

At this point, our signal gang was split up forever. Many of them never came back aboard after abandoning ship. Some went to other ships and asked to join their crew. Before the attack, our gang had approximately 45 to 50 men including the flag personnel. Thirty-three of these men including myself were ship signalmen. To my knowledge none of them were hurt. I never saw more than two or three of them again after I was transferred. And none after 1943 until November 1980. From 1943 until November, 1980, I hadn't seen anyone from the old gang.

I was one of six signalmen that was picked to stay with the ship until January of 1942. Some of the others were Chief Pappy Yost, C.M. Ball SM3/C, W.K. Boltz SMJ/C. I have forgotten the names of the rest.

At 7:15 P.M. December 8th, C.M. Ball received—and I recorded for him—the following message from CinCPAC in semaphore. CinCPAC's signalmen were still located on top of a Navy yard water tank. (I will decipher the heading).
(00 V 0F2) This means all ships present from CinCPAC who is Admiral Kimmel. (L) Relay on. (z) Originator. (0F2) CinCPAC. (08l9l5) Date and time. (ZPQ) I've forgotten this Z signal. I believe it is a radio signal to "Relay on." (BT) Break-begin text.


I still have the green signal bridge copy, it can barely be read. The message was published in the ships last newspaper, "The Cub." The edition also carried the last cartoon showing a wounded grizzly bear (another nickname for the ship) coming out of a Pearl Harbor forest and meeting both a Jap and a Nazi. The paper was printed on the beach and it was Chuck Sharman' s last cartoon for the California. He was transferred to the heavy cruiser Portland a short time later.

Those of us that remained continued to man the signal bridge, but at times we slept somewhere on Ford Island. When not on day watch, I would tool around the air station in the old truck. Nobody ever asked me any questions when I drove it in to refuel.

I only had two cents in my pocket when I abandoned ship. I used it to buy five penny postcards and a 20 cent clipper air mail stamp. I threw four of the cards away, put the stamp on one and mailed it to my parents to notify them that I was O.K. (They never received it).

I wore my oil-soaked uniform and a pair of shoes that I found until the air station collected a batch of used uniforms from someplace. They stacked them in huge piles inside of an empty hanger. Jumpers were in one pile, pants in another, etc. Most of the clothes were blues. Those of us that needed them would line up and pick one of each until we had a complete uniform. Nothing ever fit. Since I was cold all of the time, the blues felt good even in the tropics. I also picked up a green marine overcoat.

I was wearing the coat one day while driving my truck around the station when a naval officer (doctor) stopped me and said, "Son are you a sailor or a marine?" After I said, "Sailor, Sir," he put me to work using my truck to haul the dead to the hospital located across the ferry in the Navy yard.

At the hospital I was greeted with a horrible sight. There, outside of the morgue, lying in neat rows, were all of the dead. God, all of those boys had been happy, horny, grab assing mates only a few days before. They were all immortal (the young always are) with limitless futures.

I then helped line the dead, like they used to line up for liberty. They wouldn't know that I hoped (and still hope) that they made that liberty at last.

It was here, after I had unloaded the bodies, that I remember eating my first solid food. At the morgue, someone handed out horse-cock sandwiches. I grabbed several even though my hands were covered with pieces of the dead and wolfed the food down while sitting on the truck's front fender.

I carried the first load of dead all alone, but later on the officer detailed another sailor to help me. After several more trips, I quit because I had to go back aboard the ship for my watch. Before doing so I removed the distributor rotor from my liberated truck so no one could steal it.

During most of this time, I not only had trouble getting food, but I had trouble getting water as well. We had heard that the Arizona had broken the water main when she settled to the bottom. In any event, several times, I'd stop the truck and drink from a swimming pool.

Along about December 10th, 11th or 12th, things became a bit more organized. Men from the air station found and reclaimed my truck. We began to either have our meals at the station's mess hall, or have it brought to the ship in tureens. We almost gagged on the coffee because signalmen rarely touched the stuff that was prepared by Navy cooks. However, since we did not have electric power on the bridge to fire up our own pot (it had survived), we found cook's coffee better than nothing at all.

I remember the lonely night watches on the bridge. Two men to a watch, though sometimes there was only one. The ship listed so badly that many times during the dark, I thought she was capsizing. My imagination was further magnified by the many weird sounds that came up and out of the open hatches, galley and stacks. Loud creaks, muffled bangs and tearing sounds would continue throughout the night. At times, I could swear that some of the crew were still alive below and perhaps some of the trapped men still were. The smell was indescribable. It was like burnt cloth and cordite all mixed in the ever present smell of fuel oil.

The nights were totally black because there were no lights on anywhere. At times, the ship would shudder, bob up and down and shift as she settled more and more into the mud. Each time I would go into the solarium and check the inclinometer using for light a small flashlight that had a piece of carbon paper with a pin hole in it covering the lens.

To relieve myself when nature called, I could not just let go over the side due to my respect for the ship, even though she was so crippled (the water was only a few feet below the bridge on the port side). Instead, I would go down the starboard ladder to the water level that covered the boat deck. One night while there, I failed to hear the water splash as I was relieving myself. I stooped down and searched for the cause with my flashlight. I discovered it was the upper torso of a corpse that was lodged in the ladder rungs. It was gone when daylight came.

Find a Tour


Remember Pearl Harbor Tour from Waikiki

Guided Tour

6-7 hours (approx.)
From $129

The Complete Pearl Harbor Tour Experience With Lunch

Guided Tour

10.5 hours (approx.)
From $204

Pearl Harbor & Honolulu City Tour from Waikiki

Guided Tour

5.5 hours (approx.)
From $67

Official Passport to Pearl Harbor


6-8 hours (approx.)
From $89.99
Terms of UsePrivacy Policy