The Heroic Story of Raymond Ortiz Salsedo
December 6, 2016
On December 7, 1941, 49 civilians were killed when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. They were fire department employees, government staff, and locals who were simply going about their day. We don’t hear much about them. Most of what we read is focused on the military personnel who died.
We also don’t hear much about the civilian survivors, who seem to have shied away with little or no recognition for their post-attack efforts. But there were civilian heroes, some who worked tirelessly for days or weeks helping to clean up the carnage.
We spoke with one of these amazing men to hear his account of what happened on that fateful day.
“I was working on top of the dry dock next to the Cassin and Downes destroyers. Without warning, the destroyers exploded. Shrapnel flew past and hit the walls of the shop behind me. There was another battleship in the dry dock and explosions from the destroyers.
“I was gripped with extreme fear and panic. I felt my stomach muscles stiffen and cramp from fright and I couldn’t stand up. There were more explosions from the two destroyers and I was knocked out. When I woke, the attack was still underway. I crawled under a parked train, terrified, then heard my supervisor yell “Ray Ray.” I regained strength, stood up and loaded my gear onto a 40-foot Navy … boat with a few other men. We headed to the Oklahoma, urgently, knowing people were dying.
“I could hear them screaming.”
This is the story of Raymond Ortiz Salsedo, 95 years young, and it’s a story he’ll never forget. A civilian working as an underwater welder when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on that fateful December day 75 years ago, Raymond is a survivor and a hero.
“When I reached the Oklahoma, I opened up the areas marked by shop fitters – they had the ship’s blueprints and knew where we could burn to open up the ship. For around five hours, I burned open the Oklahoma, with around 12 people coming out of the burn holes over that time.”
After working on the Oklahoma, he returned to the dock to help people who were injured, and to help burn open other ships that had been hit. That day, Raymond Ortiz Salsedo was sworn into the Navy.
He stayed for three days working nonstop, getting by on adrenaline. When he finally returned to his pregnant wife, she couldn’t believe it. She’d believed him to be dead since he hadn’t returned right after the attack. As with most others under the impression another attack was imminent, Ortiz Salsedo built a deep shelter for her in the back yard to keep her protected.
Back at Pearl Harbor, it was days before anyone could reach the Arizona, because the burning was too intense. After the fire went out, Ortiz Salsedo was assigned to remove the main 16-inch diameter guns and three turrets, a task that took weeks to complete.
“The guns were very long, maybe 30-40 feet. Huge bolts held the guns down and I had to burn the bolts out. I worked 3-4 hours at a time, then would go back and rest. I was told that the turrets would be mounted in the mountains in preparation for a return attack. It took weeks to burn out the turrets and gun bolts so that floating cranes could lift the turrets out,” he said.
“I burned both the inside and the outside of the Arizona. The images are still very vivid.”
Ortiz Salsedo spent weeks after the attack burning boats, and took just one day off – a decision that saved his life.
“I took one day off and the man who stepped in to replace me started to burn open a compartment when it exploded, killing three fire watch sailors and himself.”
He continued working on the ships through the raising of the Oklahoma and recalls the process as though he is watching it on a movie screen:
“The Oklahoma was on its side and huge cables with winches on the dock were used to pull the ship upright at a rate of about an inch per hour. I went from compartment to compartment burning holes to allow all the water to flow to the location of the pumps. It was a big job. As the ship slowly came up, I patched the holes and pumps took the water out. At a certain point the compartments were pumped out and sealed and the ship started floating again. That’s when it was towed away for salvage.”
Raymond continued to work at Pearl Harbor as a civilian until 1947, when he moved to Honolulu to work for the Army at Fort Shafter. Following this he moved to California, and worked at Mather AFB and McClellan AFB, retiring at age 55 after 38 years of service.
Raymond’s efforts after the attack were heroic, and while we read and hear about the servicemen who played a vital role, it wasn’t until last year—74 years on—that Raymond finally received recognition from the US Government. He has no service medals, no patches and no survivor medals. But his memory is sharp as a tack!
This year, Raymond Ortiz Salsedo is returning to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary of the attack. It is the third time he has been to the site, and though he didn’t want to return, his granddaughter Kelly convinced him to do so. It will be the first time he has visited the Memorial as a recognized war veteran.
“The 75th Anniversary means a lot to me,” he said.
“All of these years, I’ve never had any recognition, yet 75 years later, I remember it as though it happened today. It’s a difficult memory to carry my entire life, and it will follow me to the grave.”