Pearl Harbor!

On Sunday, December 7th, 1941, I was walking with a friend on East 17th Street in Brooklyn, NY, when a neighbor sitting on his stoop, intently listening to his portable radio shouted, “Pearl Harbor has been bombed!”

That’s how I first heard the news that the Japanese had attacked our naval base in Hawaii and that a large part of our fleet had been damaged or sunk!

We sat on the stoop with him as the news reports continued to come in, fragment upon fragment, and we knew, each of us, that our futures would not be as we had previously planned.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was scheduled to speak to the nation on the radio the next day.

And how robust and unifying it was when he did.

“A day that will live in Infamy!”

I had been working for the Navy Department, Bureau of Ships as a research engineer. We were then located at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, tasked with improving the air flow so fundamental to the survival of the crews in the crammed quarters of our naval vessels, both in living quarters and fighting areas.

The need for maximum ventilation and air conditioning in a turret, firing 16 inch shells, enclosed in a steel cell with hardly enough space to load and reload the 16 inch guns whose shells could hit targets 24 miles away…The noise and the fumes and the heat could, within minutes, overcome any crew, all voluntary in this branch of the service at the time.

And ventilation was a primary problem because of the close quarters in general and an intricate network of ducts, turns, plenum and the equipment to move the air had to be crowded into the limited space provided, the first priority being the ability to engage in combat.

The “yard” was located along a stretch of the East River just east of the bridge that connected Brooklyn with Manhattan.

I had worked in Washington, D.C and Pittsburgh before being assigned to the yard, and during previous years, while a student at The Brooklyn Branch of City College, had often walked along the docks fronting the East River, viewing, with total innocence, the many freighters with “Naru” on their bows, loading scrap iron and steel for transport to Japan.

On Monday morning following the Sunday attack, I reported to the yard as usual and found a dramatic increase in security, armed marines at the gates and on the roofs of the surrounding buildings, some marines with World War I helmets, manning machine gun emplacements, constantly searching the skies.

No one knew where or how the next attack would occur.

Across from the laboratory where I worked was the marine barracks, and newly minted marines, all so young, were lined up in full battle regalia as they climbed into the open trucks which would bring them to stations covering the extensive acreage of the yard.

IN the yard at the time in the dry-dock nearest to our building was a British destroyer which had been badly damaged in it’s war with the German Navy.

We had not as yet entered the war when she was floated in but the feeling was that we would, soon, and while the building of new ships was at full throttle, the repair of damaged British vessels was also current priority.

As I was with the group that had worked on her ventilation systems, I and my family were invited to the launching of the Missouri, then still dry, out of the water, on the ramp on which she was being built.

It was a festive occasion. Flags and the Navy Band. Miss Margaret Truman the Vice-President’s daughter, broke the champagne bottle to christen her “Missouri”, the chocks holding her were removed and the massive battleship started sliding down the “ways” into the tidal East River.

She was dragging heavy chains that would drop to the bottom of the river as she slid further into the water, slowing her advance and allowing greater maneuverability as she was led, by tugs, into a now water-filled dry-dock, where the water would later be removed and the finishing work done.

I stayed with the Bureau of Ships till well after the war, when the staffs were cut or reassigned to the many naval stations both here and abroad.

By that time I was married with our first child well on the way, and I decided to take the chance at a new career in the art field, but that’s another entirely separate story.

Edwin Kolsby
Southbury, CT © 2015

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