Mighty Ships, Brave Men: Oklahoma, Utah And Arizona
Gideon D. Asche
A few years back, maybe 35 or so, I was sent back to the U.S. on a recruiting trip. To my delight, one of the prospects was a Marine stationed at Pearl Harbor meaning I was going to spend time on the beach.
Heiney, my partner and best friend, was scheduled to go with me. My parents kept a condo on Tusitalia, overlooking the Ala Wai Canal, in Waikiki. We had a private place to stay – there was no doubt this trip would be a good time.
The phone rang within an hour of arriving at the condo and we were invited to a BBQ out on Ford Island. An old family friend kept the keys to my parent’s condo, so I knew there would be an obligation to visit with her and her husband at least once while on the island.
When I say, “old family friend,” I mean old enough that it was a guarantee Marie would embarrass me with stories of diaper changing or worse. It didn’t matter – I wouldn’t have missed an opportunity to visit with her and her husband for anything.
I wanted to show Heiney the Arizona Memorial and the Bowfin museum; a WWII Submarine converted into a museum that recently opened to the public. We were both sponges when it came to military history.
Bowfin, the only US submarine to claim an enemy “Passenger Bus” as a victory, was right next to the Arizona Memorial office, so I figured we could spend the afternoon there, then meet Marie and the Captain at the gate.
I planned on calling them from the Bowfin Museum. We didn’t need to meet with our Jarhead until the following Monday giving us a couple of days to soak up all that Hawaii had to offer two fools like Heiney and me.
Arriving at the Arizona Memorial Building in between tour groups, we had to wait about an hour before we could get passage from the memorial building out to the memorial itself. We walked to a nearby restaurant and had a beer and some appetizers while we waited.
I took the opportunity to educate Heoney about Arizona and why she is hallowed ground. I explained Arizona’s unique status as a currently commissioned vessel in the U.S. Navy. She has a minimal crew and a flagpole attached to Arizona herself.
The Colors are hoisted and stricken each day with the same ceremony and significance as any other warship in the U.S. fleet. I explained that Arizona went down with most of her crew and was the only Battle Ship damaged too badly to be raised and returned to service and the only one on the bottom with a crew and a Flag.
We lined up with thirty or so other tourists waiting to get on board a U.S. Navy launch that would take us out to the mooring at Ford Island; the place where Arizona was tied up on the morning of Dec 7th, 1941 when a Japanese bomb pierced her deck and ignited her powder magazine sending Arizona and 1177 of her men to the bottom of the harbor.
From the moment we got on the launch the atmosphere became somber and respectful. Even the small children seemed to know they should be still. It could have just been a case of good parenting and the presence of what looked like their grandfather who was wearing a WWII Veteran baseball cap with the USMC globe and anchor prominently displayed above the words IWO JIMA.
I shook his hand when I had the opportunity and said, “Welcome home brother, and job damn well done.” His eyes smiled at me.
The Arizona Memorial – Well, it just isn’t possible to put an adequate description of her in words. It’s as if the spirit of the Old War Wagon resides with her dead, full of honor, full of pride.
Heiney was as taken as I expected. I caught him rendering a salute at the wall that bears the names of Arizona’s 1177 dead – a universal act of respect from a Soldier.
The launch returned with another group of tourists and we boarded for the return voyage. I often wish we had taken pictures, but we didn’t take pictures of each other as a matter of policy and it was a hard habit to break. I don’t have one picture of my best friend – I still see him at night sometimes.
Back on dry land, we made our way over to the Bowfin museum where I asked to use the phone and called Capt. Bolton to give them an ETA at the Ford Island gate. Ford Island is a secured area that houses a lot of intelligence operations and electronic surveillance type stuff; it requires special authorization to get on the Island.
His wife, Marie answered and when she found out we were at the Bowfin she said “Stay put!” and told me to give the phone to the manager of the Bowfin gift shop. The woman nodded several times then hung up and gave me a big hug. “I’ve seen pictures of you when you were just this high,” she held her hand at waist level. My mother and Marie were both involved in the organization that was responsible for restoring and displaying the Bowfin.
Marie was a regular volunteer at the gift shop making us the center of attention for the three or so employees and volunteers on duty that day. Marie and the Captain only needed about 15 minutes to get from their house to the Bowfin.
I was unaware that Capt. Bolton started his career as a 17-year-old radioman on a submarine identical to the Bowfin. He gave Heiney the hundred dollar tour. His connection to the Bowfin organization gave him the ability to take Heiney beyond the marked boundaries of the museum showing him parts of the boat no tourist would normally get to see.
We went directly to Captain Bolton’s house on Ford Island. Captain Bolton was one of the top intelligence officers in the Pacific theater and it was his retirement tour. I assume that’s why he was assigned one of the nicest quarters I have ever seen; a 1940’s beach house on the part of the West Shore of the island that was curved giving the house a 270-degree waterfront view.
A screened in lanai on both sides of the house made this perfect for entertaining. Jack had a large round ceramic grill on the front lanai. He served us each a beer and lit the coals. Two military sedans arrived almost simultaneously. An Admiral who I had never met, and a man whom I idolized as a teenager joined us.
Lt. Colonel James N. Rowe was the soldier I strived to be. I knew he and my brother were friends but didn’t have any idea he knew Capt. Bolton or that he was invited to the BBQ.
I read the book Five Years to Freedom chronicling Rowe’s career as a Special Forces officer and his five years as a POW in Viet Nam when I was in high school.
Drinking beer and chowing down on BBQ with Nick Rowe was a high point in my career. I was trying to explain to Heiney exactly who Rowe was to me, and why I was acting like an idiot stalking the poor man when the Admiral stood up and suggested we prepare for Retreat.
Three gray military carryalls were parking across the street from Capt. Bolton’s house near a dock that went out to what looked like a flagpole attached to something in the water.
Heiney asked the Captain what it was. “Utah! That’s Utah. She went down the same day as Arizona but most people think Arizona was the only battleship not raised.” Heiney looked at me with suspicion. Just a few hours earlier I had gone into great detail about Arizona being the only Battleship not raised.
The Captain continued, “There were three battleships damaged badly enough that they couldn’t return to service. There were Arizona and Utah; she’s on her side right out there.” He pointed off the lanai toward where the flag was. “Most of her crew got off, but we still lost 58 good men.”
The admiral piped in “not as bad as the 1177 we lost on Arizona.” They both kept using “We” when they referred to the war, then I realized they were both in the Pacific in WWII. LTC Rowe gave us a time check, “1757hrs, 3 minutes till retreat” all five of us took standing positions at the rail.
At 1800hrs exactly, a Petty Officer began giving commands. The detail struck Utah’s Colors. We stood at attention for the duration of the ceremony. As we took our seats, the Captain continued, “There was one other: Oklahoma.”
The Admiral interrupted the story with,“You ain’t NEVER gonna make no goddamn razor blades outa OKLAHOMA.” He held his drink high in toast: “Oklahoma! She is mighty and She is true. Oklahoma I’m proud I served with you”.
As soon as Heinrich realized the Admiral was at Pearl Harbor when the attack took place it became his mission to hear as much firsthand about that day as possible. The Admiral was a “Shaved Tail” Ensign on Oklahoma Dec. 7th 1941; he was blown off the foksul into the harbor by a water plume from a near miss during the attack.
He started by explaining the razor blade remark – Oklahoma was crippled in the attack and although she was raised, she would never be battle worthy again and was being towed back to the mainland for scrap.
The surviving crew was almost grieving at the rumor Oklahoma was sold for scrap to a razor blade manufacturer. The admiral smiled as he explained that halfway across the Pacific; “The Old Girl decided she would never be razor blades.”
Without any apparent cause, Oklahoma gave it up. She snapped her tow cable then She slowly rolled over and sank to the bottom, all hands were rescued.
The Admiral leaned over the table pointing his finger at me. “She succumbed to her goddamn wounds. She went down with honor! She had the right to be buried at sea with her men… AND the bastards wanted to chop her up like bait fish!”
You could tell the razor blade prospect was still an open wound for him. I had to wonder how many of Oklahoma’s crew helped her make that honorable exit.
I wanted to ask the Admiral where he was the day Oklahoma sank.
He seemed way too proud of the event to not have intimate knowledge of it.