Flames, smoke and BOOM

A small boat rescues a USS West Virginia crew member from the water after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (Associated Press file photo)

Carl Otto laughs heartily at the memory of the phone call he got at 7:45 a.m. Monday. "I picked it up, and I hear one word: BOOM.

"It was one of my old pals," says Otto, a retired Attleboro police officer now living at Christopher Heights. "He wanted to make sure I remembered where I was 68 years ago today.

"Imagine that. He called almost to the minute."

At a quarter to eight on Dec. 7, 1941, a 19-year-old Carl Otto had just finished his work in the ship's mess of breaking down, cleaning up and packing away the tables that had been used for breakfast aboard the U.S.S. Bagley, a cramped destroyer where tables were a space-wasting luxury between meals.

The cook had fixed him an egg sandwich and a cup of coffee for his own breakfast, which he took to the rear deck where sailors on break and sailors waiting to start their 8 a.m. shift would gather to smoke and swap stories.

When they saw the first plane fly in, somebody remarked, "it must be Chinese. I've never seen an insignia like that before, a big red circle." When a second plane zoomed by, "somebody said, that's awful close. It was so close, we could see the pilot waving to us."

And they saw something drop off the plane. "When it hit one of the carriers, I think it was the Tennessee," recalls Otto, "that's when we knew we were in deep trouble."

It was the beginning of the Japanese sneak air attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Over the next 90 minutes, two waves involving 353 airplanes flew in to bomb the ships and Hickam Airfield. By the time they were done, the Japanese had sunk or run aground 18 ships, including five battleships, destroyed 188 aircraft, and caused personnel losses of 2,402 killed and 1,282 wounded..

As you could imagine, and as documentary film footage attests, the attack was an hour and a half of hellish chaos, but Otto will tell you "I didn't see any chaos at all. I was too busy doing my job."

It was the job of a powderman on a heavy gun. Otto would pack a 25-pound powder charge into the gun, another man would pack in a 55-pound shell, the gun would be fired and they would repeat the process "non-stop. When it was over, brass shell casings were littered all over the deck. I don't know if we hit anything," he says with another laugh, "but we did plenty of shooting."

For the record, most accounts say the Bagley is credited with six of the 43 Japanese planes shot down that morning. It had an ironic advantage over most of the other ships - the Bagley wasn't supposed to be in Pearl Harbor that day, but on maneuvers with the carriers Lexington and Enterprise, but it had steamed back to Pearl because repairs were needed. Other ships had their ammunition lockers locked; the Bagley was ready to fight.

Prior to the attack, Otto recalls "life in paradise. Can you imagine being 19 years old and 6,000 miles from home in Hawaii?"

But he knew what he was getting into. As a junior at Attleboro High School, Otto had been following the headlines and believed war was inevitable. He decided to enlist so he'd have a greater choice in his assignment and chose the Navy.

In October of what would have been his senior year of high school, Otto was undergoing two months of boot camp at the Newport Naval Base. From there he joined about 200 other young enlistees in a cross-country train ride to Long Beach, Calif., where he joined the crew of the Bagley.

Before Dec. 7, 1941, the days were filled up with work and training, occasionally broken up by maneuvers. After the attack, the Bagley was one of the first ships to steam out of Pearl Harbor and immediately went on patrol for the Japanese invasion that many expected would follow the air attack.

A year later he was transferred to the Fargo Building in Boston, then to another destroyer, the USS Bancroft. The ship was posted to the Aleutian Islands for a year of particularly tough duty, then went back to Pearl and then off to the Philippines. Over the course of his six-year enlistment, the ships he was on earned nine battlestars.

"It's an odd thing, but I remember five of those battles, but I don't recall the other four at all," he says. The guess from here is that Otto, who rose to the rank of gunner's mate, was too busy doing his job and staying alive in those four battles.

In the end, Otto gave the Navy an extra two weeks of his time. He was on duty in mid-August 1946, loading gun parts in the Philippines, when an officer came looking for him. "Are you Otto? You're not supposed to be here. You're supposed to be home."

His enlistment had been up on Aug. 5. Otto got back home to Attleboro on Aug. 21.

He took a job at Larson Tool, began raising a family and in 1957 began a 23-year career as an Attleboro police officer.

Now 87, he can still call up an image of flames and smoke rising from the oil-slicked waters of Pearl Harbor. And he can still call up a belly laugh when an old pal calls to say "boom!" on the anniversary of the attack.

MARK FLANAGAN is Opinion Page editor of The Sun Chronicle. He can be reached at 508-236-0335 or mflanagan@thesunchronicle.com.

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