Charles Sehe: Surviving Pearl Harbor

Retired college professor Charles T. Sehe at 92 years young this year.

Retired college professor Charles T. Sehe at 92 years young this year.

Believe me, my recent visit to Carson City has been one helluva rich, rewarding, challenging and enlightening experience for this former shipmate of the USS Nevada.

When I first boarded the battleship, Feb. 10, 1941, at the Bremerton Navy Yard in Seattle, Wash., this Depression-era 17-year-old kid would never expect the events that would soon follow.

Here is the ever changing address that I intended to give to the audience who filled the Capitol grounds that emotional moment I was to say thank you. I could not even start it. Thank you, Nevada. (Aboard our ship, we were always thought of as being Nevadans, even though we came from different states).

I do appreciate the courtesy given to me to visit your great state of Nevada. I am obliged especially to thank those individuals, and the Navy League who, with their generous support of financial aid and time, provided me with this opportunity.

Today, this 92-year-old Navy veteran stands among the shadows of a younger generation of civilian warriors. Those of us who have been in one war or another know that terrorism is not a typical warfare, nonetheless, it is a deadly war carried out by groups of individuals possessed by a fervent idea, determined to destroy the American way of life — freedom of thought and expression. Freedom is not an idle phrase. It is close and personal.

Whatever our feelings about war and regardless whether war is just or unjust, necessary or politically contrived, we are obliged to support our present troops and those of us out of uniform, civilian veterans, for freedom of thought and expression is yet one of our most cherished human rights. Freedom is not an idle phrase. It is close and personal.

As American citizens, we are obliged to preserve our nation’s heritage, honor, and to protect her sacred rights, for our flag, Old Glory, drenched in blood through 10 major wars and numerous conflicts, remains our most precious possession as a nation. Friends, they are damn worth preserving, no matter what the challenge, even if from within our own government.

In one’s lifetime, an individual usually experiences a gradual transitional change from the age of innocence and imagination to the age of experience and reality. Not so with many teenage Depression-era youth who enlisted in the military forces to obtain the offer of full meals, warmer clothing, and bedding and an opportunity to visit exotic places. The transition came swiftly, abruptly, and life threateningly. I was a Second Class Seaman, having no technical skills yet.

On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, I became a stunned witness to America’s last hour of peace and her first hour of war. Already at 0752 hours, Japanese were crossing over battleship row from all points of the compass. From the searchlight platform, my battle station, one can see over the entire harbor. Machine gun bullets coming from a low-flying Japanese war plane shredded the ensign that was flying at the Nevada’s stern. The surprise aerial attack lasted 110 minutes. Underway at 0758 hours, the Nevada began its 98 heroic minutes to reach the sea, despite its gaping torpedo wound and slight bomb hits.

Immediately after the attack, an urgent call came from the commandant’s office for volunteers from the sunken vessels to transfer to other ships, raising their complement of officers and crew members to full combat readiness. Some of those vessels leaving the harbor were to engage an enemy having a far more superior naval force — sunk with high casualties.

After the infamous Sunday attack, an extremely painful task awaited the Nevada crew — removal of the dead and wounded amid the numerous fires raging throughout the upper decks and compartments. I, being only a Second Class Seaman, having little technical skills, remained as a member of the 450 skeletal crew to be later known as Pearl Harbor survivors.

Fortunately, the sunken ships lay in shallow depths, 35-40 feet, not at sea. This allowed the boarding of the ships by many working crews coming from the machine, salvage and electrical shops throughout the harbor. A major tactical error of the otherwise well-planned and executed aerial assault on the U.S. Naval installations was the failure to order a third strike (originally planned) on the machine ship complex and the numerous oil tank bins located near the submarine base.

Actually, there were moments when we could be free from the strained tension of combat engagement and were able to gain several minutes of rest, relaxation and even a short nap at our battle station. Each shipmate or officer aboard the Nevada sought, in his own way, a moment to relax. The more adventurous, spirited guys would be deep down in the bowels of the ship, engaging in a game of chance (cards or dice), far from the haunts of the Master-at-Arms force. My favorite place was topside, main deck, near the ship’s stern. Here, I could watch the foaming sea water being churned up by the twin propellers located more than 45 feet below. As I watched this mesmerizing scene, I would actually verbalize my thoughts as they entered and left my mind, for I needed to distinguish what I desired and actually needed. If I survived this war, as I sought out my life’s meaning, I often asked, why me? Why didn’t I die?

Charles Sehe, a Minnesota resident, is a Pearl Harbor attack survivor. Sehe, who was aboard the USS Nevada during the attack, was recently honored in Carson City.


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