Pearl Harbor Attack Still Vivid For Survivor

Sailor swam from capsized battleship under a blazing sea


J.R. Williams credits the military training he received as a teenager at Great Lakes Naval Station for saving his life after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

That training included swimming the length of an Olympic-size pool, under water without coming up for air.

"I know now that I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for all that swimming under water," Williams said.

His aquatics training turned into a lifesaver just after the battleship USS Oklahoma was struck by Japanese aerial torpedoes, rolled over and sank that fateful day 64 years ago.

"Our battleship capsized, the order to abandon ship was given and we had to swim to Ford Island under water because the entire sea was one huge blaze," he said. "Just like in those practices at Great Lakes, I couldn't come up for air.

"I knew all the time I was under water that if I (surfaced), I would burn or be strafed (by Japanese fighters)."

Aubrey Mahaney, stationed aboard the USS Utah, also remembers the escape from the burning ships.

After the war, he wrote "It was a swim to shore, through thick oil, under fire from the attacking planes. They strafed us in the water. I saw men throw up their arms and go under.


J.R. Williams

"Reaching Ford Island, I ducked into a trench to hide. The sights and sounds of defeat were all around."

Shipmates trapped

More than 400 of the Oklahoma's crew died in the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Williams was one of the lucky few who made it to the ship's top deck, where he was able to escape into the ocean -- then a burning oil slick.

Many of Williams' shipmates were trapped on the lower decks of the Oklahoma.

Pearl Harbor reports show some were cut free by intensive efforts of Navy Yard employees, but others died.

At the onset of the attack, after the order for battle stations was issued, it was Williams' duty to scamper from his berthing quarters four levels below to the top deck where his assigned anti-aircraft gun was located.


After the USS Oklahoma was hit by aerial torpedoes during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, J.R. Williams swam under water from the capsized battleship to Ford Island. The surface of the water was ablaze with thick oil and Japanese planes where still attacking from overhead. More than 400 of his shipmates never made it out alive.

The journey topside was one he has never forgotten.

"Every time a torpedo struck, it raised the ship three or four feet in the air and made my knees buckle," he said. "I was climbing a ladder, but it was really like walking on air because I never stepped, just hung on with my hands and got thrown around."

As he climbed toward his gun station, Williams suddenly understood the true gravity of the surprise attack.

"The second torpedo blew out the whole side of the Oklahoma, water and oil were rushing in and the ship was tilting about 20 degrees," he said. "I looked around and saw the harbor on fire; I think it was only then I figured out what was going on."

Williams' quest to return fire against the invaders turned bitterly disappointing when he finally reached his gun turret.

"We didn't have any ammo. I never fired a shot," he said. "All our ammunition had been moved from ready lockers to below deck because we were scheduled for an inspection."


Thick, dark plumes of smoke billow from the USS Maryland and capsized USS Oklahoma Dec. 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor.

Historical records show that during the attack on Pearl Harbor mechanized hoists on several ships, including the Oklahoma, were damaged or destroyed and ammunition couldn't readily be moved.

"With no ammunition, we couldn't fight back," Williams said.

The former boatsman first class is not sure how long it was after he reached his gun turret that officers realized the Oklahoma was going to capsize and gave the order to abandon ship.

"I really didn't have to jump because the Oklahoma's hull had turned over so far I walked down to the ocean's edge and took off my shoes," Williams said. "The bay was on fire, but (it) was our only escape."

Once Williams and a handful of fellow sailors reached Ford Island, they took cover to avoid being strafed.

"Then we tried to figure out where to go next," he said. "We headed for a hangar where we were given soap and water to clean up.

"We were told we could go to a (nearby) officers quarters to see what kind of clothes we could find."

Williams and his fellow sailors remained housed in the hangar for three weeks after swimming ashore.

"We were told not to come out or we would get shot," he said. "I was never even asked my name until Dec. 28."

After Pearl Harbor finally returned to some sense of normalcy, Williams was reassigned to the battleship Tennessee.

"It was one of the Big 5, the best," Williams recalls.

Throughout the remainder of the war, he fought in some of the greatest World War II naval battles of them all, including Midway and Coral Sea.

By the time the war ended, he had been moved stateside to Coronado, Calif. where he was a training officer.

In 1960, after 20 years in the U.S. Navy, Williams retired with honors.

"The Navy was good to me," he said. "I enlisted in 1940 after spending time in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps). My mother died when I was two, I was raised by my sister and my dad had to sign for me to join.

"It was aboard the Oklahoma that I received my high school diploma."

In Payson

Today, Williams, 85, lives in Payson and is looked after by his youngest daughter, Sue Chamberlain.

Directly behind a recliner in which he spends most of his day is a framed case built for him by one of his sons-in-law.

Enclosed in it are a picture of the USS Oklahoma, a portrait of him at 21 years of age, the uniform he wore in World War II and the medals awarded him.

As he sits, he twists and turns a ring on his finger that he proudly remembers buying just a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"I was making $30 a month and it cost me $50," he said. "I had to save what seemed a long time to buy it."

Although Williams admits he is now struggling with his health, he has no regrets.

As he looks fondly over his shoulder at the picture case and its contents, he pauses for a few moments, then asks, "Been a pretty good life, hasn't it?"

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