Surviving Pearl Harbor

Wilmington resident Bud Hollenbeck was only 19-years-old on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 — a day then President Franklin D. Roosevelt — proclaimed as “a date which will live in infamy.”

Hollenbeck was far away from home, serving on the USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock for repairs on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Like thousands of young men who served on the island during World War II, Hollenbeck’s morning was about to be shattered.

He awoke about 6:30 a.m., washed, dressed and had breakfast. A short time later, he arrived on the signal bridge of the flagship, the USS Pennsylvania.

“It was a beautiful sunny Hawaiian day with just a few clouds over the mountains,” Hollenbeck said.pearl harbor

That beautiful day turned ugly, as Hollenbeck stepped onto the deck to assume the 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. watch.

“I was hoisting the prep flag at 7:55 when I noticed a long string of planes coming in over the north end of Ford Island,” he recalled. “Thinking they were American planes making a practice run, I was startled to hear a large ‘whomp’ and then another.”

Those sounds were the opening attack on Amercian troops by the Imperial Japanese Navy, and it signaled the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War II.

pearl-harbor-survivorHollenbeck went over to the starboard wing of the bridge just in time to see pieces of an amphibious patrol plane flying through the air at the south end of the island. It was then that he saw the “big red meatballs” on the sides of the aircraft — they were Japanese navy planes.

The band was assembled on the quarterdeck waiting for the prep flag to be hoisted. This was its signal to begin playing the National Anthem. The prep flag was hauled down, and the band rushed to their general quarters stations. By this time, according to Hollenbeck, planes were everywhere.

“I was sent with my watch mate into the conning tower, a 16-inch small steel protective enclosure,” Hollenbeck said.

On his way into the conning doorway, he felt a sharp pain in his right wrist. It turned out to be a bullet fragment.

“Looking out,
we saw the USS Nevada approaching,” he recounted.

The Japanese pilots saw her too, and they focused their dive bombers on her, turning them away from the USS Pennsylvania. Hollenbeck believes that the arrival of the Nevada undoubtedly saved the Pennsylvania from more damage than it sustained.

Throughout the morning, waves of Japanese planes moved across the island. The second wave of bombers concentrated on the dry dock area where the Pennsylvania was located. The ship was hit by a 500-pound armor-piercing bomb, which resulted in the loss of 24 men. Two other ships, also in dry dock, the USS Cassin and the USS Downes, took the brunt of
the attacks.

The crew of the Pennsylvania owed a huge thanks to the crane operator of a large dockside crane, according to Hollenbeck.

“All during the attack,” Hollenbeck said, “he ran the crane back and forth along the tracks while rotating the boom around, which helped to keep the strafing planes at a higher altitude.”

As night descended, the weary forces were put on alert again, as another string of planes could be seen coming toward the island.

“Toward evening, several of our carrier planes flew in to land at Ford Island. They were from one of our carriers returning from a trip to Wake or Midway Island,” recounted Hollenbeck. “And, even though the word had been passed that we were expecting some of our carrier planes, someone with a nervous trigger finger opened up with a machine gun. Then, just about every gun in Pearl Harbor commenced firing at the incoming aircraft. Most of the planes were shot down.”

Throughout the long day, American forces were faced with an enemy they were unprepared for. History tells us that the American military intelligence knew an attack was planned; but, due to difficulty in deciphering intercepted messages, the Americans failed to discover Japan’s target location, leaving the islands unprepared. The Japanese hit American ships and military installations in two waves. The battleship the USS Arizona was hit with an armor-piercing bomb that blew the ship apart and sank it within seconds. Nine ships of the U.S. fleet were sunk, and 21 were severely damaged. The overall death toll reached 2,350, including 68 civilians. There were 1,178 injured.

Of the military personnel lost, 1,177 were from the USS Arizona. Japan lost only 29 out of their 350 aircraft.

In the wake of the attack, the USS Pennsylvania’s bomb damage was repaired, and it set sail from Pearl Harbor two weeks later. Christmas was spent at sea and, on Dec. 29, the ship pulled into San Francisco Bay. “There was concern that the Japanese would attack the west coast, and the Pennsylvania was assigned to protect it,” Hollenbeck said.

The USS Pennsylvania was returned to duty in April 1942. The ship endured numerous battles from 1943 to 1945, including leading bombardment missions and assaults on Kwajalein Island, Eniwetok, the Marianas Islands, Saipan and Guam. The USS Pennsylvania fired more ammunition than any other ship and expelled so much metal that it earned the nickname of “Old Falling Apart.” In 1945, while anchored in Buckner Bay, Okinawa, it was struck by a Japanese aerial torpedo, which caused the deaths of 20 men and created a 30-foot hole in its stern.

Hollenbeck served on the ship until it was decommissioned in August 1945. The ship was sunk off the shore of Kwajalein Island in February 1946. LOL