The Story Behind Pearl Harbor’s Most Successful Rescue Mission

The capsized USS Oklahoma and the USS Maryland
The capsized hull of the U.S.S. Oklahoma (right) is visible next to the U.S.S. Maryland. Photo by © CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

When Julio DeCastro, a civilian worker at Pearl Harbor’s naval yard, reached the capsized U.S.S. Oklahoma on the infamous morning of December 7, 1941, he heard the sound of frenetic tapping of sailors trapped within the hull. Hours earlier, during a surprise assault on the Honolulu military base, Japanese forces had bombarded the American battleship with torpedoes, sending it rolling onto its side with more than 450 men still below deck.

Over the next two days, DeCastro, a caulker and chipper, labored almost nonstop in a valiant effort to reach the imperiled seamen. The Hawaii native and his fellow naval yard workers ultimately rescued 32 members of the vessel’s crew—an act of bravery cited in “Infamy: Pearl Harbor Remembered,” a new exhibition at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans marking the 80th anniversary of the attack .

“[As a civilian,] DeCastro acted on his own initiative, organized a group of individuals, got tools and equipment, and then kept going deeper into the ship,” says Tom Czekanski, senior curator and restorations manager at the museum. “They were risking their own lives to rescue these men.”

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor began just before 8 a.m. on December 7. Over the next hour and 15 minutes, Japanese forces damaged or destroyed or 19 American ships, leaving the normally peaceful Hawaiian naval base awash in fire and fear. The United States’ total death toll from the bombing was 2,403 soldiers and civilians.

The Story Behind Pearl Harbor's Most Successful Rescue Mission
Sailors attempt to extinguish fires on the U.S.S. West Virginia. Photo by U.S. Navy / Interim Archives / Getty Images

In accounts and commemorations of Pearl Harbor, soldiers like Dorie Miller, an African American cook who earned the Navy Cross for shooting down two Japanese airplanes, and Aloysius Schmitt, a Navy chaplain who received the Silver Star for sacrificing his life to help 12 sailors escape the Oklahoma—are widely remembered for their bravery. But few today recall the contributions of DeCastro and his civilian colleagues.

As the Honolulu Star-Bulletin recounted in March 1942, DeCastro and his crew came to the scene with blowtorches, pneumatic chipping guns, compressors and other tools needed to break through the ship’s thickly armored hull.

“They first tried cutting torches, but the compartment below them caught fire,” says Czekanski. “Cork was often used as an insulation in those compartments. The oil-based paint used on ships at the time was so thick it would burn. The paint on the steel would catch fire.”

Next, the rescuers turned to chipping guns. Fitted with chisels, the tools use pneumatic pressure to rapidly hammer away and cut through steel—a slow, laborious process.

 “Many battleships of the day had 16 inches of armor on the sides for protection,” adds Czekanski. “On the bottom, though, it’s closer to a quarter inch, but it’s steel. Basically, they are cutting through steel plate with a hammer and chisel.”

Adding to the danger was the fact that the workers didn’t know what lay beneath them. For all they knew, their chippers could be breaking into fuel tanks, powder magazines, ammunition bunkers or other explosives.

The Story Behind Pearl Harbor's Most Successful Rescue Mission
A total of 429 Oklahoma crew members died as a result of the attack. Photo by Lucy Pemoni / Getty Images

Fortunately, Commander E.P. Kranzfelder had a solution. Assigned to the U.S.S. Maryland, which was moored next to the Oklahoma, he located a manual with schematics and details for the overturned battleship. The Booklet for General Plans of the Oklahoma would save time and lives as workers tried to break through the keel and rescue the sailors inside.

Even with the booklet, the rescue was long, hard work. The crew labored through the hot day into the cold night, trying to breach the hull. “The Arizona was still burning,” DeCastro told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “[I]t threw a light on us as we worked. And for about an hour there was antiaircraft firing all over the place. But we kept on working. If the firing got too hot, we’d flatten out against the hull and hope nothing would hit us.”

Stephen Bower Young was one of the sailors trapped in the Oklahoma. He and ten fellow seamen were below a gun turret near the bottom of the ship when it capsized. Now, they were stuck near the top of the vessel. With air supply falling and water rising in the pitch-black compartment, Young and the others took turns banging out “SOS” in Morse code with a wrench.

“We had no knowledge that any attempt at rescue was even being made until the first sounds of the air hammer were heard as dawn came over the islands,” Young later wrote in Trapped at Pearl Harbor.

As the rescuers began to make headway with the hammering, another problem arose. Their cuts allowed air to escape from inside the ship, sending water rushing into the compartment below. The trapped sailors scrambled to plug up the openings, but they were soon knee-deep in water.

The Story Behind Pearl Harbor's Most Successful Rescue Mission
Julio DeCastro (seated, second from left) poses with his family. DeCastro and his fellow naval yard workers rescued 32 men from the capsized U.S.S. Oklahoma. University of Hawaii Archives and Manuscripts Department / HWRD photos

At long last, the work crew managed to break through the hull. Yard worker Joe Bulgo reached in and started pulling out sailors. One pointed to the adjacent compartment and said, “There are some guys trapped in there.”

Called the “Lucky Bag,” this neighboring hold was used to store peacoats and personal items. According to Young, who was stuck inside, DeCastro replied, “We’ll get ’em out.” It took Bulgo an hour to break through the bulkhead. He made three cuts in the steel, then yelled, “Look out for your hands, boys,” as he used a sledgehammer to smash through the wall. Young and the ten sailors scrambled to safety.

All told, DeCastro and his co-workers rescued 32 men from the Oklahoma. Of a total crew of nearly 1,400 officers and sailors, 429 died as a result of the attack. Navy divers located the last of the sailors’ remains in June 1944.

The sinking of the U.S.S. Arizona accounted for around half of the attack’s total death toll, with 1,177 officers and crewmen killed and 335 survivors. The battleship’s wrecked hull was left in place and now is the site of a national memorial.

Similar rescue efforts at Pearl Harbor failed to mirror DeCastro’s success. Because the Oklahoma capsized, that team had better luck reaching survivors at the bottom of the ship, which was now above the surface. For ships that sank keel first, it was more difficult and dangerous to reach sailors trapped underwater.

On the U.S.S. West Virginia, tapping from deep within the ship continued for more than two weeks. Rescuers tried to reach the sound, but the damage was too severe. Months later, salvage workers recovered the remains of three sailors—Ronald Endicott, Clifford Olds and Louis Costin—in an airtight compartment. On the wall was a calendar with 16 dates crossed off in red pencil: December 7 through December 23.

The Story Behind Pearl Harbor's Most Successful Rescue Mission
Salvage workers recovered the bodies of three sailors from the wreck of the U.S.S. West Virginia (far left) months after the attack. Photo by Photo12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“A diver had nearly died trying to rescue men from the U.S.S. Arizona, which is one of the reasons they didn’t go into the West Virginia,” says naval historian Michael Lilly, a founding director of the U.S.S. Missouri Memorial Association and author of the book Nimitz at Ease. “The Navy decided it was too dangerous to try and extract them.”

The former Navy officer pauses, adding, “It would haunt me if I was one of those sailors who heard those guys banging around down there for two weeks. It would never leave me. It’s despairing to think we couldn’t do anything to bring them up. It’s a sad, sad tale.”

DeCastro, for his part, was honored with a commendation by the commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District. He died in 1984. Asked about DeCastro years later, Young simply said, “He was a leader of men.”

Reflecting on the rescue mission in 1942, DeCastro told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that he received an unexpected request upon returning to the naval yard the night of Monday, December 8.

“Somebody came up to me while I was changing clothes,” he said. “I was all in and hungry and wanted to get home. This guy asks me, ‘Why didn’t you fill out this overtime slip?’ I look[ed] at him and [said], ‘Christamighty!’”

“Then, because it was blackout and no transportation was available,” the newspaper reported, “DeCastro walked five miles through the uncertain second night of the war to his home.”

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