Utahn Survives the Attack at Pearl Harbor

Allan Kent Powell
History Blazer March 1996

One of the most remarkable survival stories of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is that of Walter Staff. Born in Magna, Utah, he grew up in Salt Lake City where he attended South High School before joining the Navy in February 1940. He was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma in the summer of that year. On Friday night, December 5, 1941, the Oklahoma returned to Pearl Harbor from maneuvers in the Pacific. Part of the crew was given shore leave, and those who remained on board looked forward to a weekend of light duty. Walter was among those on board the battleship when it was attacked and sunk. He remained trapped in the submerged battleship for two days until rescue crews were able to set him and a companion free. He was the last of thirty-two sailors to be rescued from the Oklahoma, which lost 450 of its 1,300-member crew during the attack. Interviewed nearly fifty years later, the ordeal remained vivid in Walter Staff’s mind:

“I had been to breakfast. We had pancakes and sausages. First general quarters sounded. Everybody was grousing around—we had just been off maneuvers, it was Sunday morning. We thought it was just another drill again and why on Sunday morning. Then about thirty seconds later a boatswain’s mate came just screaming over the speaker. And you could tell by his voice that something was wrong. My general quarters station was on the water watch [to check for water leaking into the ship]. I had to go the length of the ship on the third deck. I was about halfway down the port side, and we felt this one hit. I came back up out of the lower compartment into this big forward air compressor room. There were four or five of us there, and we got another hit. It shattered the lights and we were in complete darkness. Somebody had a lighter. It gives you a lot of light when you are in total darkness. Then it was just like a waterfall—all of a sudden you are in water. I came to and felt around and Centers was there with me. We still didn’t know what had happened and never heard from or saw the other two or three guys. We were all right there together when the ship turned over.

“We could hear firing, and then later on after the main battle was over we could hear boat whistles, and we knew we were sunk, but we had no idea how bad everything was. We knew where we were trapped and we expected the air to be used up. We would just pass out, and we were resigned to our fate. We didn’t see any hope at all knowing about where we were and everything.

“You lose all track of time. Then we heard some tapping and we figured something was going on. They tapped one-two, one-two. Then we tapped back. We were under a lot of pressure.

We knew they were there. We could see a little bit of light. They are cutting away and I am watching the water below us. The water is coming up and they are cutting. I thought the water was going to beat them. It is up around your waist now, up around your neck. The water was running out where the rescue crew was working, so they just took off. You could hear them leave. It is about the worst thing, because you are that close to being rescued. You can just about touch somebody and then they had left. We pushed into this other compartment. We dogged the door down after we got in so none of that water could get in. Pretty soon they were up above us, and there was a hatch on this one. They yelled down asking if we were in a dry compartment. I told them “Yeah,” and they said, “Stand clear.” The door flops open and there’s your rescue party. I thought it was just getting dark Sunday night when we came out and it was just getting light Tuesday morning. I lost twenty pounds since I didn’t have anything to eat or drink for the two days we were trapped in the ship.”

Source: Allan Kent Powell, comp., Utah Remembers World War II (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1991).