Fifteen-year-old sailor Martin Matthews of Shelbyville, W. Va., shouldn't have been on the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941. Assigned to nearby Ford Island Naval Station, Matthews was on board the Arizona to visit an old buddy, Seaman 1st Class William Stafford, en route to some sightseeing on shore. First, however, Stafford gave his friend a tour of the 25-year-old battleship.
The Arizona was one of the last of the great "ultimate weapons of the sea," displacing about 32,500 tons and measuring 608 feet. The battleship carried a main armament of 12 14-inch guns. Thirteen-inch steel slabs shielded her hull, and 20 inches of armor encased her four turrets. "I wish I could get duty aboard a battleship!" Matthews told Stafford.
Their tour was cut short when Stafford had to return to duty. Like the other crews in Pearl Harbor that fateful morning, the sailors of the Arizona were on the deck for morning colors and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." According to most reports, the crew members did not move until the last note was sung, as usual — despite the billowing columns of smoke across the water and the thundering Japanese gunfire. Pearl Harbor was under attack.
It took Japanese planes less than 15 minutes to break the back of the enormous USS Arizona. While some witnesses recall at least one other torpedo hit, it was one bomb, from decorated Japanese bombardier Petty Officer Noboru Kanai's plane, that penetrated the main deck. "I think the second bomb that hit was close to the aft deck that I was on … it scared the living hell out of me," Matthews said in an interview for "Remembering Pearl Harbor: Eyewitness Accounts by U.S. Military Men and Women."
Matthews was blown overboard by the explosion, still in the dress whites he'd donned for sightseeing. "There were steel fragments in the air… and pieces of bodies." He swam to a mooring buoy and clung to it through the rest of the attack.
Matthews was fortunate, as was his friend, Stafford, who also survived the attack. Of the 2,400 military personnel killed on "the day that will live in infamy," almost half went down with the Arizona.