Key point: The Navy was caught off guard, but its men fought back. This is how several of America’s men in uniform returned the enemy’s fire.
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Gunner’s Mate Russell Winsett, 19, awoke at 5 am as he did most mornings. As he went topside he could see that the weather was like almost every December day in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, sunny blue skies with a few white puffy clouds.
This was a day Winsett was looking forward to. He thought to himself, “It’s gonna be a beautiful day to visit the island with my cousin, his wife, and three kids.” Winsett had met his relative William Pope several months earlier when his family wrote and told him that he had a distant cousin also stationed at Pearl Harbor. Winsett had found the ship William was serving on, contacted him, and they met for a short visit. The next day his cousin went on a two-month cruise. Winsett was looking forward to reconnecting with his family member and getting to meet his wife and kids while taking in the sights of Hawaii. It was a long way from home for this Alabama farm boy.
Winsett graduated from high school in 1939 and began working on the family farm. His oldest brother had already joined the Army. In 1940, Russell started thinking of life off the farm. “It was a good life, but I didn’t like the back breaking work of farming in the heat,” he said of his childhood in the little town of Hamilton in northwest Alabama. “I was simply tired of using a mule’s ass for a compass. So one day, me [sic] and two other buddies decided that we would join the Navy. We drove to the recruiting station over in Florence. During the medical exam they found something in my kidneys they didn’t like, so they took my two buddies immediately, but sent me home with instructions on how to cure myself. Two weeks later I went back, and they passed me that time.”
Winsett never saw his two buddies after that but found out later that both of them lost their lives during the war. He was soon off to boot camp in Norfolk, Virginia. After boot camp he took a five-day train trip to Bremerton, Washington, to join the crew of the battleship USS Pennsylvania. “Back then you didn’t have all the specialized training they do with sailors today. You learned by getting on ship and having the chief watch over you.”
The lead ship of her class, Pennsylvania was laid down on October 27, 1913, by the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, in Newport News, Virginia. Launched on March 16, 1915, and commissioned on June 12, 1916, she began her proud tradition in October of that year as the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet. During her time as flagship, the Pennsylvania escorted ships carrying President Woodrow Wilson on tours as well as having Vice President Thomas Marshall and other dignitaries on board. In 1922, the Pennsylvania joined the Pacific Fleet based in San Pedro, California. During the interwar period, her duties primarily involved operations along the West Coast.
Winsett felt lucky to be assigned to such a proud ship. “This ship is a whole lot bigger than my house,” he remembered thinking upon seeing the Pennsylvania. His first week on board was spent getting familiar with the ship and learning his duties. After a week, the Pennsylvania set sail for Hawaii. “The cruise took about a week, and we had some rough seas but I never got seasick, and then we finally sailed into Pearl Harbor. It was like being in paradise.”
The Pennsylvania arrived in January 1941, and Winsett was excited to go ashore and see the sights. Life on the island was beautiful and fun for this young man of humble beginnings. “Really, you couldn’t do much on $21 a month pay,” he said. “Mostly when we got liberty we just went downtown. Some guys liked to go to Hotel Street, which was kinda the main drag. That’s where the working girls hung out.”
For Winsett, however, that was not one of the pleasures of this paradise. When asked, he smiled, shook his head, and with a gleam in his eye said, “No that wasn’t for me, especially since it cost $5, and I was only making $21 per month.”
Winsett’s shipboard duties did not allow for a lot of free time. “There was always something to clean, something to wax, or something to paint on board,” he explained. The Pennsylvania crew was especially proud of one member. Joe Bennett was the fleet heavyweight boxing champ and a friend of Winsett. “Everyone knew Joe to be a good guy, but he was definitely someone you didn’t want to mess with.”
On the fateful morning of December 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack, the Pennsylvania was in Drydock No. 1 at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard with three of her propeller shafts removed. In the same drydock off the bow of the Pennsylvania were two destroyers, the USS Downes and USS Cassin. Pennsylvania’s normal sea berth while in port was B-2, which was occupied that morning by the cruiser USS Helena with the minelayer USS Oglala alongside. Activity aboard the Pennsylvania was even quieter than normal since she was excused, due to being drydocked, from the normal morning antiaircraft drills. A condition watch of antiaircraft personnel was on duty, but the guns where unmanned.
With the Pennsylvania in drydock, the crew had to go ashore to bathe and use the facilities. After breakfast that morning Winsett made his way down the gangplank toward the shipyard facilities to shower and get ready for his day with his cousin and family. “I wasn’t in any big hurry, since liberty didn’t begin until 8 am,” he recalled. “It was just a normal day. No one was really expecting anything.”
The battleship USS Pennsylvania lies in drydock in Pearl Harbor during the aftermath of the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. Just forward of the battleship lie the severely damaged destroyers USS Downes (left) and Cassin. Pennsylvania sustained some damage, but her crew managed to fight back, firing machine guns and antiaircraft weapons at the attackers.
Then, just as Winsett began walking back toward the Pennsylvania, he heard booming noises. “I thought, ‘Man, that’s a strange time to have battle practice on Sunday morning.’” Explosions were heard on the end of Ford Island aft of Drydock No. 1. At 7:57 am came a bugle call and alarm for general quarters.
Wearing his dungarees, Winsett ran the 50 yards back to the ship and his battle station, a .50-caliber machine gun facing toward the bow on the starboard side. He still believed it was just “another drill.” As soon as the stations were manned, Condition “YOKE” (Enemy Is Probable) was set by Captain C.M. Cooke, Jr.
“None of us believed it was an actual attack, at least at first,” remembered Winsett. “Back then there wasn’t TV and just occasionally a radio for music. I didn’t keep up with the news on a daily basis, and maybe the officers suspected something but they never told the enlisted men anything, so we were all surprised. By the time I got to my position the first wave of attacking planes had started their strafing run. The ammo box beside my gun was locked, so I took a dog wrench and broke off the lock.”
Winsett’s gun was not the only one with the ammo locked up. In the after action report it is noted that many men broke off the locks versus waiting for keys to be found. However, Winsett now laughs that a junior officer put him on report and recommended he be courtmartialed for breaking the lock or, as the junior officer stated in his report, “destroying government property.”
“That Ensign took me before the captain after everything was over and the Captain just shook his head and said, no we are not going to even consider this. That ended my court martial,” Winsett laughed.
On that fateful morning, sailors aboard ships throughout Pearl Harbor were stunned and then sprang into action. “Japanese planes, they were all over,” Winsett said. “You could see the red ball on the wings and the fuselages.”
Winsett began firing his .50-caliber machine gun, and while he will not claim that he shot any Japanese planes down, he is sure he hit many of them. “The ammo was set with tracer rounds every third shot, so it was easy to follow my aim,” he commented. “Those Jap planes were so close I could see the smile on the faces of the pilots as they attacked.”
Fighters and dive bombers streaked overhead, strafing the Pennsylvania as they passed. Winsett kept firing. One civilian, a shipyard worker named George Walters, ran the large dock crane back and forth along its track attempting to block the path of the low-flying Japanese aircraft with the boom. Gunners on the Pennsylvania had their fields of vision blocked since they were below ground level in the drydock and used the boom as a warning sign to indicate the direction of incoming Japanese aircraft.
Last Stand at Pearl Harbor: This Ship Didn’t Go Down Without a Fight is written by Warfare History Network for nationalinterest.org