PEARL HARBOR, HAWAII, 1941: Chicago-born Adolph Czerwenka, a 22-year- old radioman third class, was aboard the battleship USS West Virginia, the "Wee Vee," when the Japanese launched their surprise attack early on Sunday, Dec. 7, prompting the United States to declare war on the Axis powers.
We all felt that war was coming. We just didn't know where or when. The Wee Vee had this huge armored hatch over the machine shop. It had a sign that said, CLOSE HATCH IN CASE OF WAR. That hatch had been snugged down since mid-October. But the attack on Pearl came as a complete surprise. The West Virginia was moored with six other battleships beside Ford Island--it was called battleship row. I was in the petty officers' washroom that morning. I was stark naked, laundering uniforms. It was hot in there. The squawk box burst out with the order "Away all fire and rescue parties." I found out later the duty officer had seen an explosion on shore. He was dispatching help.
Almost immediately, a torpedo hit the ship and general quarters sounded. I rushed to my battle station in the transmitter room--no shoes on, nothing. I didn't have time to get to my locker. Or to think. We tried to get the communications going and the radar turned on. It was brand new. Torpedoes were hitting the ship, and paint chips were spraying off the bulkheads. A radioman kept sweeping up the chips after each explosion. The ship began listing to port. Then the lights went out. All this only took about 30 minutes. The order came to abandon ship. I helped a couple of injured engineers up the companionway.
The Arizona blew up just as I got on deck. The explosion knocked me flat under the aft turret. There was oil and fire everywhere. I just sort of slid down the port deck and into the water. An empty motor launch drifted by. …