Dec. 7, 1941: For Pearl Harbor survivor retired Lt. Cmdr. Roy Carter, it was one of the luckiest days of his life.
Sixty-eight years ago, Carter escaped the battleship USS Oklahoma after torpedoes tore through the heart of the ship, causing it to tip over and sink in little more than 10 minutes.
Carter, like everyone else on board and in the Pacific fleet, had no clue of the incoming Japanese invasion.
While he was three decks below in the carpenter shop, he heard an alert.
“Air attack! No Sh--! All hands man your battle stations. Set conditions zed!”
“These were the last words we heard in the damage control section,” Carter said.
Imminent attack At 89, Carter’s memory of the attack is distinct.
His story rolls out softly in a voice like Jack Lemmon’s, evoking the feeling that he could be anyone’s narrating grandfather.
Carter said his battle station was to lock down a watertight door with eight handles and a water tight hatch that could only be opened from the third deck.
After he heard the call for an attack, he proceeded to close the door but a quartermaster from the deck below needed to go topside, so Carter let him pass. He closed the door and hatch immediately once the man was gone.
Torpedoes hit while Carter locked the door, and the Oklahoma began tipping.
Carter felt the thumps as the bombs barraged the middle of the ship.
“You could feel every impact,” he said.
“If there was an explosion sound, I didn’t hear it because it was far from my mind.”
In the dark The attack took out the ship’s lights and communications.
The worst part for Carter, he said, was that by locking down the door, he sealed eight quartermasters into their stations below him.
Since communications were down, Carter didn’t have any more orders but he knew his only option was to leave.
He began climbing out on his hands and knees as water and oil drenched him from head to foot.
Somehow, none of the doors above him had been sealed and he climbed out before the ship turned over and pulled him under.
“If I had taken one more minute and the men above me had closed the watertight hatches, I’d be dead,” he said.
Carter later discovered that the eight men below him were saved by his efforts.
After the ship flipped, the quartermasters were trapped for 30 hours but were safe from that rising water and oil that the door kept out. They banged and hammered the hull and pipes to let people know they were inside and eventually they were cut free.
“I felt I saved eight guys that day,” Carter said.
“Of the 429 that died on the Oklahoma — miserable deaths — I don’t know the amount that were killed by torpedoes but there were a lot who starved to death or drowned while trapped.”
Years later, Carter was reintroduced to one of the eight quartermasters, Bud Kennedy, who lived in Port Angeles until his death.
On the surface Carter’s escape didn’t end when he got off the Oklahoma.
While swimming to a nearby ship, high-altitude bombers dropped bombs within 100-yards. “Somehow, none went off,” he said.
While swimming for his life, he found a motor launch that soon was filled with escaping naval men. They took the boat to the nearby submarine base.
There, he was scrubbed free of oil when the second waves of attacks came.
Carter said loud booms from the anti-aircraft guns and incoming bombs continued, but the sub base never was struck.
After the attack, he recalls being given new clothes and a blanket before sleeping that night in one of the lanes at the submarine base bowling alley.
Preconceived atrocity The attack was not something Carter could have fathomed, he said.
His first assignment on the Oklahoma had been swabbing the deck and scraping barnacles while it was dry-docked in Bremerton.
It wasn’t what he wanted but it was better than the alternative.
“I was making $15 a week at 10 hours a day, six days a week bagging groceries,” he said.
“When I joined in 1938, I made $21 a month for 24/7-service.”
Eventually he was promoted to senior damage control man in the rear portion of the ship.
After years of thinking about the event, Carter believes the fleet could have been warned.
“’Til my dying day, I feel this was planned,” Carter said.
“(The government) knew and did not keep (Navy brass) advised to what was going on. I feel (the government) knew it was coming,” he said.
The future in the past Despite his anger about there not being a warning, Carter is proud to have served on the ship. A display of the Oklahoma is first in his home’s hallway and a medal-filled frame hangs on his living room wall.
Following his service on the Oklahoma, he served for three months on the USS Pelias, a submarine support craft, before being offered flight training.
Carter was commissioned as a naval aviator and was served on active duty for seven years, mostly in Europe. He flew a B-24 that carried special weapons such as depth charges and torpedoes. Following his duty, he stayed in the naval reserves for 13 years.
Carter said he’s most proud of receiving his flight wings and being commissioned as an officer.
Personal life In 1944, he married Barbara, his wife of 65 years, and went on to have three children who have given them four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
He’s lived in a handful of states and retired with his own insurance agency. He moved to SunLand in Sequim 23 years ago.
Carter used to play golf but his bad knees and Barbara developing Alzheimer’s disease over the past 12 years have forced him to quit. He spends much of his time caring for her.
His tradition each Dec. 7 has been to visit Naval Base Kitsap at Keyport in Kitsap County for memorial services but due to his and Barbara’s health, he no longer makes the trip.
Several years ago, he spoke to Sequim High School classes about the attack but he became disillusioned because some students were asleep or seemed uninterested.
“If you talk to kids today, they don’t seem to have an interest in Pearl Harbor. Some don’t even know where it is,” Carter said.
“You’d think some would be interested because it’s history. If people get anything out of this, I hope it’s some history.”
Reach Matthew Nash at email@example.com.
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