It’s been 75 years, but for David Russell, the memories of the more than 400 fellow sailors — many of them close friends — who died on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, are vivid.
Their images are most haunting in the dark of night, when Russell’s Albany home is silent.
That’s when he thinks about the roar of Japanese planes flying low overhead in their early Sunday morning sneak attack on the naval base. There were bombs exploding, machine guns strafing the base and torpedoes sinking ships, including the USS Oklahoma, his home for 18 months.
And of course, there is the stench of war that never fades away.
Thousands of sailors died and hundreds swung between life and death in the burning oil-filled waters of the previously tranquil, clear-blue bay.
The sturdy bearded young man who grew up in the small town of Auburn, Nebraska, was reading a book while waiting to begin his early morning repair shift on the Oklahoma.
The attack on what had been a sleepy Sunday morning would leave his ship overturned in the bay, the 21-year-old Russell scrambling by rope to the nearby USS Maryland, frantically trying to stay out of the raging oil- and gas-fueled fires.
The Japanese — allied with Nazi Germany — thought the attack would scare the United States away from entering a war that had been growing in Europe and islands throughout the Pacific Ocean since 1939.
Instead, those 110 minutes of terror galvanized a country that had been divided over whether it should get involved — the memories of World War I still vibrant — and plunged the United States into World War II.
There were 1,354 men on the Oklahoma and more than 429 perished that morning, many of whom Russell considered friends. Today, just 29 of his shipmates remain. Of nearly 45,000 persons stationed at Pearl Harbor that day, fewer than 2,000 are believed to still be alive.
Russell said he joined the Navy in 1939 to escape the Great Depression that haunted the entire country, but especially crippled the farm and ranches of the Midwest.
“There weren’t any jobs,” Russell said. “Nobody had anything. I was the oldest in the family along with two brothers and a sister.”
After training at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois, Russell was assigned to the USS Oklahoma, a slow, outdated battleship docked in San Pedro, California.
“We were set up to hoist boats and sea planes out of the water,” Russell said.
The Oklahoma sailed from California for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1940, and Russell said duty was lucrative for more than a year.
“I was a seaman first class,” Russell said. “We started off earning $30 per month and then went up to $36 and eventually $54.”
Having known tough times during the Depression, Russell greatly appreciated three hot meals daily and a clean bunk. There was also plenty of time to explore Oahu when off shift.
“We had a recreation area on the island where we could get food and beer and play sports. We wrestled and had a punching bag and barbells.”
Russell also enjoyed watching movies every night aboard ship, “Until the war started,” he said.
But Russell’s life changed dramatically a little before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7.
While an envoy of Japanese officials were in Washington, D.C., as a smokescreen, their military forces staged a multiphase aerial attack on Pearl Harbor.
Waves of planes strafed and bombed both the naval and army bases, severely damaging ships docked in the harbor, killing 2,335 servicemen and wounding another 1,143.
Of the eight ships severely damaged that day, only two, the Oklahoma — which was deemed too old to repair — and the USS Arizona, never returned to duty. The Arizona remains in the bay and is the site of the Pearl Harbor Memorial.
Russell and other sailors had been repairing “blisters” on the side of the ship for some days. "Blisters" are metal reinforcing shields designed to protect key areas of the ship.
“They get rust on them and we had been removing that and oiling the metal,” Russell explained.
Russell had spent Saturday in downtown Honolulu visiting with his uncle, George Russell, who was stationed at nearby Hickam Air Base.
“He predicted we would be in the war within two days,” Russell said. “There was so much speculation and information in newspapers about that possibility. We knew something was up because we had painted the ship black, even our bright work, and we were very proud of that bright work.”
When the attack began, Russell headed below deck to a duty station, but quickly realized his services might be needed top deck to help load guns.
By the time Russell made it topside, the Oklahoma was already listing sideways, eventually completely overturning. Russell saw his fellow sailors in the burning water and knew his only hope was to make it to the nearby USS Maryland.
“I jumped and caught my right foot on a piece of metal that was overlapping,” he said. “But I made it to the Maryland by catching a rope.”
As he had planned to do on the Oklahoma, Russell helped load the Maryland’s anti-aircraft guns.
“I didn’t see the Arizona blow up, but I did see the destroyer Shaw blow,” he said. “Guns were going off everywhere and it was very loud.”
Russell said he could see the Japanese attack planes flying very low over the ships.
“Every time you go into battle you are scared, but you adjust to it and do your job because you are so well-trained,” Russell said. “We drilled constantly.”
Russell said he kept thinking, “Why are they attacking us?”
Although he wasn’t injured physically, Russell said his pride took a beating.
Russell and many others lost everything in the attack and had only the clothes on their backs for several days.
Dec. 23 he was assigned to the destroyer USS Mahan as a gunner’s mate.
The ship and Russell would go on to see numerous intense battles.
“That’s the job of a destroyer,” Russell said. “We went looking for trouble every day.”
He said the ship fired its guns so many times they had to replace its barrels.
The 5-year-old Mahan provided support for Marines landing at Guadalcanal and engaged in numerous battles until Dec. 7, 1944, when it was severely damaged by a kamikaze attack in the Philippine Islands.
On fire and exploding, the ship was sunk by a U.S. Navy destroyer.
Again, Russell escaped unharmed.
He was in the United States when the war ended, but instead of seeking a discharge like millions of other soldiers and sailors, Russell decided to stay in the Navy.
He served more than 20 years, rising to the rank of gunnery mate first class and traveling around the world.
“We were in Shanghai when the communists took over,” Russell said. “We dropped anchor and raised the battle flag. It’s really something to see. It gives you goose bumps.”
His ship made numerous trips from the U.S. to South Korea hauling military armaments.
After the war, Russell’s tours included stints in France and he was on ship during the crowning of Queen Elizabeth in June 1953. He has a diagram of where ships were docked in England on that day hanging in a bedroom of his home.
Russell retired in 1960 after a rewarding naval career.
“I really enjoyed it. Once you get used to regulations, it’s very good,” he said.
In civilian life, Russell worked in the transportation field until 1980.
“I think about that day all the time, especially at night,” Russell said of Dec. 7. “I thank God we’re fine, but I worry about how much longer we can stay free.”
The sneak attack “woke us up,” Russell said.
“I am proud of what we did,” Russell said of his generation. “We did wonders.”
Russell served in Japan after the war, and although he was shocked by the devastation caused by the explosion of two nuclear bombs, he believes it was the right thing to do to end the war.
“I definitely approve,” Russell said. “We didn’t lose any more lives after that.”