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Douglass Man Clung for Life in Pearl Harbor
By David Stowe
(retyped with revisions for John Berndsen)

DOUGLASS -- Simon Berndsen spent an infamous Sunday in 1941 being strafed while hanging by his fingernails from a pontoon plane in oil-covered waters that were on fire not far from him.

Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 Berndsen was one of dozens of sailors who had escaped the wreckage of the U.S.S. Oklahoma after it was hit by Japanese torpedoes only to find more danger in the waters of Pearl Harbor.

Fifty years later, with the anniversary of the Japanese air raid that brought the United States into World War II approaching, Berndsen recalls in vivid and sometimes gruesome detail how he ended up in those waters and how he eventually found safety. But to this day, he doesn't know what happened to some of the men he worked with.

Sitting in his spacious Douglass home with Christmas decorations glittering around him and a fire crackling in the fireplace in the next room, Berndsen told the tale of his Pearl Harbor experience Wednesday night.

A pistol-wielding officer, a trapped sailor asking his shipmates to cut his leg off and a long slippery fall were among the things he saw and experienced, he said.

What still baffles him the most, however, is that he did not realize until he got to shore that he had dislocated his hip and broken his foot.

And he said, "I don't remember holding my breath. Nobody does. There were times when I had to hold my breath for a long time, but I don't remember holding my breath."

Berndsen does remember Dec. 7, 1949, however. He remembers that his story started like the stories of most of the people in Pearl Harbor that day: quietly.

"I was cleaning up the dishes and stuff in the mess," Berndsen said. He had pulled cook duty and was on the second deck of the ship where the portholes are located. Berndsen had just finished the dishes, he said.

He was on his way back from dumping the dishwater in the head - the Navy name for the toilet - when he looked through the porthole and saw three planes headed straight for the ship. Something fell from them into the water, and the planes zoomed past overhead.

Moments later the torpedoes struck.

"It went boom and the battleship jumped up in the air," Berndsen said. "So they must have all hit at about the same time."

One hit the ship's oil tanks and blew the glass of the portholes in, spraying the inside of the ship with oily water in the process.

"So they came over the loudspeaker to go below the protective deck. That's about 13 inches of solid steel," he said. Below the protective deck, a lathe had been blown on top of a man's leg, and water was coming up through the bottom of the ship. The man asked his shipmates to cut his leg off so he could escape.

Then the call came to man battle stations. Berndsen's battle station was on the second deck, and his job was to take messages through ear phones. He went back to the second deck where he had been before and put the ear phones on, but they were dead. Berndsen never found out what happened to the man below the deck.

The Oklahoma was now tilting heavily toward the side that had been hit. Berndsen was on the side tilting up out of the water, but because the second deck is mostly filled with bunks he could see from one side to the other. Water was coming in the portholes on the other side of the ship.

An officer with a group of men came along. "And I said let's get the hell off here. The thing's going to sink, and he pulled a gun on me. He said, 'Man your battle station.'"

Berndsen told him the phones didn't work, but the officer said he should stay at the station while he and the other men closed the portholes.

"He said if he caught me out away from my battle station he'd shoot me," Berndsen said. "And he was the type of guy that would have done it."

U.S.S. Maryland, Trapped Behind the Overturned U.S.S.Oklahoma But the ship continues to tilt farther to one side. Eventually it would capsize. "So finally I thought I'd get the hell off there anyhow," he said. The he slipped.

And because the ship was now almost on its side, he fell about 20 feet to the other side of the ship, trying to grab bunks and other objects all the way. But the oil made them too slick. "That's just like falling off a telephone pole," he said.

At this point he had probably dislocated his hip and broken his foot, but he didn't know it.

Berndsen went to the escape hatch and after struggling got it open and swam into the water. Not knowing which direction he was going, he followed some bubbles to the surface and broke through a half foot or more of oil that lined the surface.

A pontoon plane that had one wing's flotation device shot away was floating nearby. He swam through the oil to the plane and clawed the wing with his fingernails to stay on. Several other sailors did the same, and the plane flipped over.

An oil fire on the surface began coming close, but a firefighting boat put it out. All the while the Japanese were continuing their attack. "They seemed to come over every once in a while just shooting." he said.

Finally a small boat from one of the battleships came toward them and a sailor grabbed the edge. But the oil made it too slick and he slipped and was sucked into the boat's propeller.

Berndsen and the other were more careful and got aboard. Since Berndsen was the only one who knew how to run it, he was put in charge of running the boat.

Other sailors grabbed at the sailor who had gone into the propeller, trying to dislodge him, but he couldn't be dislodged and kept going underneath the boat. Finally they told Berndsen to move the boat forward and the sailor was pulled under and never came back up.

When they got to the dock, Berndsen pulled an unconscious man from the boat only to see him throw up oil and flop down dead. He then went into the concrete barracks and lay just below the windows, where he could still see and hear the battle. That's when he realized he couldn't move.

"And the thing that I will never understand in my lifetime is how I did that and I never felt any pain in my legs, but after I laid down on that cement floor, then I couldn't move."

When quality is required, call Johnny Berndsen.
 

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