William Czako: World War II

Pearl Harbor Letter

There is a 40 ft hole in our bow and numerous small ones from flying shrapnel...

Contributed by Warletters.com

Writing from the U.S.S. New Orleans, Ensign William Czako gives an eyewitness account of one of the most fateful attacks in American—and world—history

“Dear Sis: It is now 9:05 Sunday morning and we've been bombed now for over an hour,” William Czako began a handwritten letter to his sister, Helen, on a winter morning from inside the U.S.S. New Orleans. Czako continued to give his sister a dramatic, moment-by-moment description of what he and his fellow sailors were experiencing as hundreds of Japanese Zeroes bombarded the unsuspecting U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Our anti aircraft guns are yammering and every so often a bomb strikes so close as to rock this ship. Again a bomb. We're helpless down here in the Forward Engine Room because our main engines are all tore down. We're trying to get underway if possible. We were just struck by a bomb near the bow. We're fighting back as much as possible because we have no power to load our guns, no power circuits to fire them. It is all being done by hand.

This seems to you like a nonchalant letter, but it's the straight dope. There are only a handful of us down here as most of our men are ashore on liberty. They really caught us sleeping this time. For a ship being in a Navy Yard for overhaul, we're putting up a good fight. The first officer has come down here now to take charge. We've lit off all the boilers that are not out of commission and are trying to get underway so that we will not be altogether helpless by lying alongside the dock and are a stationary target. Those bombs are getting closer — God grant that they do not hit that loaded oil tanker that is lying right across from us. Ten million gallons of fuel oil would bathe this ship in an inferno of fire. There are destroyers lying near us and three other cruisers. They must be the targets including us. I am on the interior communications telephone and I can hear the various stations screaming orders at one other. A man just brought us our gas masks. We have four engines but we can at the best only use two. We're getting steam up though. The firings of the guns have abated somewhat but we've received orders to get underway as quickly as steam can be raised. The firing has continued. Wave after Wave of bombers must be coming. We've figured that some aircraft carriers must be the source of these fast dive-bombing planes. We've been struck several times now but fortunately there are no casualties as of yet.

It seems funny to be writing like this when it may be your last. I've never figured it to be like this. The next bomb may be our last but I will keep writing until I am told to stop or am given another job. Some Battleships that are tied up to the piers near the Fleet Air Base are reported to be afire. It seems that the Airbase was their first objective and the Battleships were just too close to that field. We were really caught short this time. All the Battleships are in — they came in this week and have been laying tied up. We have a few light cruisers that are out and we hope they can keep that invading fleet at bay until our ships that are undamaged and can get underway can get out of this trap. For a trap this Pearl Harbor has become. If we can get out of here and to sea we've still got a chance. We'll have our own power then. They can't get ammunition fast enough to the guns because of no power to the hoists. There has been a lull for a few minutes but there they go again. Strangely Sis, I'm not excited but my heart is beating a little faster from all that firing. I know that this is not a drill because the concussion of exploding bombs is jarring the whole ship.

I don't know why I am writing this because if we are hit with a bomb here they won't find enough of me, let alone this letter. I imagine it is to show myself that I can be calm under fire. A few of the boys here are white faced and their voices hushed and choked. They too know that this is no joke or mock battle, but the real stuff. For out of a cloud studded blue sky and on a Sabbath morning death comes riding unheralded to claim for its own the unprepared and unbelieving. Who thought that they would strike in such a manner when most men were ashore and spending their payday on those traditional Saturday night sprees? They would not dare to attack us, let alone Pearl Harbor, the mightiest and most fortified base in the world. They could not get within a thousand miles of this place before we'd know it. No they dare not — but they did — Ah — there was one explosion — perilously close — yes — we were hit but not badly. The bomb struck between the bow and the stern of another ship tied up just ahead of us. Comes the report over my phones that there are no casualties but that there is a 40 ft hole in our bow and numerous small ones from flying shrapnel. That was close and still our guns keep answering as fast as hands — and not mechanical aid can feed those guns.

There is another lull and only sporadic bursts from our pom-poms. Preparations to get underway are still continuing. It seems impossible with all that machinery tore up but still we'll do what we can. The order has come now to secure from general quarters. We were under fire for nearly two hours and I'm going to sneak up to topside to see what happened.

Although a short-term triumph, the attack on Pearl Harbor did not accomplish its primary goal of neutralizing the U.S. navy in the Pacific. Indeed, the American public that wanted nothing to do with the Sino-Japanese conflict raging in the Far East was now out for blood. On December 8, Japan and the U.S. were officially at war. Approximately 2,400 Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor (almost a 1,000 of whom remain entombed in the U.S.S. Arizona, which sank to the bottom of the ocean.) William Czako miraculously survived the attack and went on to fight in the Pacific. After being honorably discharged in 1945, he worked at a shipyard in Norfolk for more than thirty years.

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