HONOLULU – When Japanese bombs began falling on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Navy Seaman 1st Class David Russell sought refuge below deck on the USS Oklahoma.
But a split-second decision on that December morning 80 years ago changed his mind, and likely saved his life.
“They started closing that hatch. And I decided to get out of there,” Russell, 101, said in a recent interview.
Within 12 minutes his battleship would capsize under a barrage of torpedoes. Altogether 429 sailors and Marines from the Oklahoma would perish – the greatest death toll from any ship that day other than the USS Arizona, which lost 1,177.
Russell plans to return to Pearl Harbor today for a ceremony in remembrance of the more than 2,300 American troops killed in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack that launched the U.S. into World War II.
About 30 survivors and 100 other veterans from the war are expected to observe a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the minute the attack began.
Survivors, now in their late 90s or older, stayed home last year due to the coronavirus pandemic and watched a livestream of the event instead.
Russell is traveling to Hawaii with the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former NFL Linebacker Donnie Edwards that helps World War II veterans revisit their old battlefields.
He recalls heading topside when the attack started because he was trained to load anti-aircraft guns and figured he could help if any other loader got hurt.
But Japanese torpedo planes dropped a series of underwater missiles that pummeled the Oklahoma before he could get there. Within 12 minutes, the hulking battleship capsized.
“Those darn torpedoes, they just kept hitting us and kept hitting us. I thought they'd never stop,” Russell said. “That ship was dancing around.”
Russell clambered over and around toppled lockers while the battleship slowly rolled over.
Once he got to the main deck, he crawled over the ship's side and eyed the USS Maryland moored next door. He didn't want to swim because leaked oil was burning in the water below. Jumping, he caught a rope hanging from the Maryland and escaped to that battleship without injury.
He then helped pass ammunition to the Maryland's anti-aircraft guns.
For decades, Russell didn't share much about his experiences in World War II because no one seemed to care. But the images from Pearl Harbor still haunt him, especially at night.
“When I was in the VA hospital there in San Francisco, they said, 'We want you to talk about World War II.' And I said, I told them, I said, 'When we talk about it, people don't believe us. They just walk away.' So now people want to know more about it so we're trying to talk about it. We're trying to talk about it, and we're just telling them what we saw,” he said. “You can't forget it.”