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An Admiral and a Fifteen-Year-Old at Pearl Harbor

TFTL_Brian Kelly headshotTuesday, December 7, 2021, marks the 80th year since the attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout his career, Assistant Professor C. Brian Kelly in the English Department within the College of Arts and Sciences has written extensively on the events of this day. Professor Kelly recalls this day for us in An Admiral and a Fifteen-Year-Old at Pearl Harbor, which is based upon his book Best Little Stories from World War II with contribution by his wife, Ingrid Smyer.


     Just about spent, the stray .50-caliber bullet pinged through the window glass 80 years ago today and lightly struck the U. S. Navy admiral inside. Picking it up, he was heard to say, "It would have been merciful had it killed me."  

     No casual figure of speech...not that day!  Not when less than two hours beforehand, 15-year-old Martin Matthews had been standing on an aft deck of the battleship Arizona with his friend, Seaman First Class William Stafford...not when they had heard a distant rumble of some kind. 

     Gunnery practice perhaps? But...on a Sunday? 

     Stafford was a U. S. Navy sailor assigned to the Arizona. Matthews, also a sailor by virtue of lies about his age, was visiting his hometown pal aboard the mighty battlewagon, one of eight lined up in a neat row that morning at the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii, home port of the U. S. Pacific Fleet.    

    But overhead now, drawing closer and closer, were black lines.  


    And then right across the water from them, they saw a startling eruption aboard a smaller ship, a destroyer or minesweeper perhaps, its back obviously broken by the explosion.  

    This was no gunnery practice.  

    "I've got to go," shouted Stafford as general quarters sounded aboard his battleship, as the call to battle stations echoed across all of Pearl Harbor. "I'll see you later."  That last never to be, as events turned out.  

   The teenager Martin Matthews, all decked out in his dress whites for his visit with Stafford, had no idea as yet. All he knew, he had no battle station here. Stationed and assigned to duty on nearby Ford Island, all he knew was that he was stuck at the stern of the Arizona with nowhere to go as, now, all hell broke out around him. 

   It was sheer pandemonium---explosions ripping through the ship itself; crewmen running, screaming; guns firing into the sky, airplanes screaming back.

   It was sheer nightmare, only no dream. Fifteen-year-old Martin Matthews really was present for the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago, a sneak attack so horrendous that 2,400 American military personnel and  100 civilians were killed outright, that seven of the eight battleships so nicely lined up on Battleship Row were sunk or heavily damaged, among the estimated 70 Navy vessels in all likewise sunk or heavily damaged, while dozens of U. S. military aircraft were destroyed, most of them caught still on the ground at adjacent airfields. 

  Happily, the carriers Enterprise and Lexington were out to sea and escaped harm. 

   As chance would have it, young Matthews was at the worst possible place to be during the Pearl Harbor attack, since the death toll aboard the Arizona that morning was 1,103, more than half the attack's overall death toll.  

  For the teenager, it was such chaos for the senses to sort out, he couldn't say for years afterward if he jumped or was blown into the water. First, one bomb hit, then another. "I think the second bomb that hit was close to the aft deck that I was on, and needless to say, I was petrified," he later recalled. "To put it in plain English, it scared the living hell out of me."  

    Knocked down by the concussions "a couple of times," he did suddenly find himself in the water. Swimming to a nearby mooring buoy, he clung on as pieces of metal and wooden timbers, even body parts, flew in the air all around.  

    He was there for the Arizona's final agony, as reported in the book Remembering Pearl Harbor: Eyewitness Accounts by U. S. Military Men and Women, edited by Robert S. LaForte and Ronald E. Marcello. "There was ammunition, gun lockers, shells, steel fragments and pyrotechnics coming from all parts of the ship," he would recall. Finally, toward the end of the two-hour attack, came a final convulsion "where she seemed like the middle part just kind of raised up in the water and kind of half buckled and then settled back down."   

    Settled down in shallow water to become the still-visible memorial it so famously is today.

   Also watching the mayhem that day---in agony of his own and a bit more distantly from an office in the submarine base at Pearl Harbor--- was Admiral Husband Kimmel, commander of the Pacific Fleet. The spent bullet that flew through the window and struck him in the chest was just volatile enough to leave a "welt," but the real injury from the attack would be loss of his sailors and ships, followed by relief of command even though he had been warning Washington of a possible Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and taking defensive measures. Now, his vaunted fleet virtually destroyed before his eyes, he ripped off the four-starred shoulder boards signifying his exalted rank. His firing not long after stirred controversy and defenders for years, as to some extent did the sacking of the general in charge of Army forces in Hawaii, Walter Short. 

     Young Matthews, for his part, would survive the sinkings of three of the eight ships he served on during the war...the same world-wide war that Pearl Harbor brought to the United States on that Sunday morning, 80 years ago.

Photo by US National Parks Service