When Tom Berg emerged onto the deck of the USS Tennessee the night of Dec. 7, 1941, the city of Honolulu was pitch black. The only sources of light were the fires raging on the nearby USS West Virginia and USS Arizona.
Berg, 96, of Port Townsend, would have to wait for the morning light to see the true devastation that had been unleashed on the ships moored along Battleship Row.
“That was a very sad situation,” he lamented.
While Berg had escaped unscathed through the battle, 2,008 of his fellow seamen lost their lives.
As Memorial Day approaches more than 77 years later, Berg fondly remembers his friends lost that day and later in the war, he said.
Berg, now one of the few survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor to remain alive, would have died himself that day had it not been for a few fortunate events. Altogether, Berg escaped from the jaws of death no less than four times over the course of the war.
In the navy
Berg, who grew up in Aberdeen, graduated high school in the spring of 1940. He decided to join the Navy to avoid the draft.
“I wanted to be in the Navy rather than the army,” he said. “I wouldn’t get dirty. None of this earth stuff. That was my misconception.”
But Berg was only 17, and recruiters turned him away until his birthday in July.
He waited and was sworn in that September. He then boarded a train bound for boot camp in San Diego, California.
“We went down through Tacoma underneath the Narrows Bridge,” he said. “Right after that the bridge fell down. We were wondering if there was some tie there.”
The bridge, nicknamed Galloping Gertie, crashed down into the water on Nov. 7, 1940.
After boot camp, Berg applied to a post on the USS Arizona because a friend, Larry Farquhar, was already aboard. But, the Arizona was in Bremerton Naval Shipyard while the Tenneesse was at anchor in Los Angeles. Because it was nearer, Berg ended up on the Tennessee.
“That was very lucky,” he said. “That saved my life.”
They put him to work immediately swabbing the deck.
“You were told to start washing something,” he said. “It didn’t matter what.”
He was assigned to anti-aircraft division 8. Berg said he found the assignment dull.
“You would have general quarters all the time. You would go to your gun mount. There was nothing to shoot at. You would sit there and talk and find a buddy.”
For Berg, that man was Eugene Oscar Roe.
To cure the peacetime monotony, the crew pitched in money to purchase a record player.
“They took the radio, packed life preservers around it, and with ropes hung it from the overhead,” Berg said. “They wanted to protect their investment.”
While some welcomed it, Berg was driven to near madness by the country music that was played over and over again by the self loading machine.
“It was some dumb- Tennessee hillbilly thing,” he said. “It was awful. I thought the crew was all made of Tennessee hillbillies.”
Unable to take another minute of the music, Berg decided to do something to spare his ears.
“I would go up and seek some of those hillbilly records at midnight coming off watch, put ‘em under my coat, go topside and sail them out into the ocean,” he said. “They made a beautiful flight across the waves.”
No one was ever the wiser, Berg said.
“They never knew what happened to the worst ones.”
Bored to tears
Deciding he wasn’t learning anything useful at his current post, Berg put in for reassignment.
“I wanted to get into the Engineering Division, which I applied for,” he said.
He was transferred in April 1941.
There are eight boilers on the Tennessee in separate compartments, Berg said. His job was to talk over the phone from his boiler room to a coordinator on the bridge who kept an eye on the color of the smoke emerging from the smokestacks.
Throughout his first year of service, Berg and his crew often spent time at sea on maneuver before returning to port at Pearl Harbor.
The morning of Dec. 7, the entire crew was up early to prepare the ship for an admiral’s inspection the next day, he said.
“At 5:30 a.m., reveille was sounded over the PA system by trumpet. You were up. The master of arms went through the ship. Anybody still in their bunk got hit with a billy club. You didn’t lounge around on Sundays.”
Berg was expected in his boiler room, but decided to go topside first to get some fresh air, he said.
“I went up to the fo’c’sle deck. It was a beautiful morning. There was condensation on the decks.”
Following his brief jaunt, Berg began descending the ladder to the main deck.
“I saw an airplane to the north end of Ford Island coming in,” he said. “He was strafing something. You could hear his machine guns firing.”
According to the action report, this happened at about 7:55 a.m.
Berg said he thought the incident was out of the ordinary, but that he didn’t realize what was happening.
“He pulled out of the dive and flew right over me and the Arizona. There were great big red circles under his wings. I dismissed that and went back down to my living quarters.”
It wasn’t long before a clarinet player from the morning colors band came running through Berg’s compartment screaming, “The Japs are bombing us!” Berg said.
“Nobody ever did that. I thought he had gone berserk.”
Then he heard the ammunition elevators in the compartment going topside.
“You knew something was going on.” That is when he rushed to his post.
Safely tucked away
As the attack unfolded, the ships around the Tennessee absorbed the brunt. The battleship was in a nested pair inboard of the USS West Virginia, which protected her from torpedo attack.
“The West Virginia was moored beside us, outboard, and got the first torpedo,” Berg said. “The impact of that pushed the West Virginia against the Tennessee. It gave us a jolt. I fell down.”
Behind the Tennessee was the USS Arizona, while the USS Maryland was just ahead of her, berthed inside the USS Oklahoma.
Within five minutes of the first attack, the Tennessee began to fire on the enemy planes with her anti-aircraft batteries and machine guns, according to worldwar2headquarters.com.
The Oklahoma, West Virginia, and California were hit by torpedoes soon after the attack began.
At about 8 a.m., Japanese “Val” dive-bombers began dropping their bombs on Battleship Row. One of the bombs fell on the forward ammunition magazine of the Arizona, causing a massive explosion.
When the Arizona exploded, flaming debris hit the Tennessee, destroying its entire stern.
“The concussion from that explosion came down our smoke pipes into the boiler and blew the fire out of the boilers into the operating space,” Berg said. “It was a flash. I was hiding in a cubicle with the chief down there. The poor guys operating the boilers had their eyebrows singed.”
The Tennessee was itself hit by two bombs at about 8:30 a.m., according to worldwar2headquarters.com. The blasts knocked out the anti-aircraft batteries.
Thanks to the boiler crews, the Tennessee had steam up and was ready to get underway by about 9:30 a.m. “Down in the boiler room, we had to take a lot of shortcuts to get the boiler operating,” he said.
An attempt was made to move Tennessee away from the burning Arizona, but she was trapped by the sunken West Virginia.
“They had the propellers turning in effort to wash that oil and fire away from the ship trying to save it,” Berg said. “It didn’t work very well.”
Berg did not see the battle unfold, but was able to keep tabs with what was happening via phone with the bridge, he said.
The morning after
Emerging on the deck of the Tennessee the following morning, Berg for the first time was able to see clearly the damage that had been done.
“Hey Berg, you know your friend got it?” a sailor said to him as he gazed upon his former anti-aircraft station.
Berg learned it was Roe who had been killed by shrapnel.
“He was just a neat guy,” Berg said.
Shrapnel from the same explosion mortally wounded Captain Mervyn S. Bennion on the bridge of the neighboring West Virginia, Berg said.
Before they were silenced, the gun crews fought ferociously, Berg said.
“They had fired so many shells that the paint had melted and was hanging in ribbons off the barrels.”
It was reported in an after action report the Tennessee had shot down four enemy planes.
All things considered, the Tennessee faired well, losing only five sailors in the battle.
“The Tennessee got pretty lucky,” Berg said.
Still, the shock was intense.
“You just wonder about, what’s next?” Berg said. “We knew we were in war. I was mad at the Japanese pulling that kind of stuff on us and all the damage and the people they had killed. I wondered about my friend on the Arizona because that was the ship that got the worst.”
It turned out Farquhar was one of less than 300 from the doomed ship to survive.
Ten days after the attack, the Tennessee was freed and set sail for Puget Sound Navy Yard for repairs.
As the crew entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Berg said he began to breathe a little easier. Then he heard the sound of an oncoming Japanese torpedo.
“I thought I had about four seconds to live. I could hear it running right underneath the ship and it went out the port side. What a relief!”
Berg said he was so petrified by fear he couldn’t yell out torpedo attack.
His relief was soon shattered by the sound of a second incoming torpedo.
“I had to live this all over again,” he said. “The second followed right in the track of the first. What happened to them, I don’t know. They might still be lying somewhere.”
Unscathed, the Tennessee anchored off of Bremerton later that night.
“You could start to breathe.”
Another turn of events would see Berg through the end of the war. After being assigned as a submariner, he applied for a position on the Capelin, a new submarine assigned to the South Pacific, he said. He didn’t get it. Good thing too, because that ship was lost with all hands including his friend, Walter W. Stasik whose wife had recently given birth to twins.
“I have always felt so sorry for him,” Berg said.
After six years in the Navy, Berg earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He moved to Port Townsend in 1986 and lives with his wife Lesa Barnes.