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War Story

The wreckage of Pearl Harbor still smolders in one man's memory.

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He stood, his back straight, his brown eyes clear, his white hair neat, and looked out on the undulating surf of Lake Michigan.

"It's like the view from a battleship," he said.

The real estate agent who was showing him the ninth-floor condominium turned.

"Were you ever on a battleship?" he asked.

"Yes I was," Richard Hall said quietly.

The imposing masts of the battleships at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, rose many stories above the water and were capped by double-deck fire control houses. Their silhouettes, encased in flames and smoke and preserved in film and photographs, would become immortal. But right now, at 7:54 on a Sunday morning remarkably blue and clear even by Oahu standards, these ships and their massive armament were thought to represent an irresistible force of American arms.

This thought would last about one more minute.

Aboard the USS West Virginia, marine private first class Richard Hall was swabbing the deck. Marines were, and still are, attached to the biggest ships in the fleet. They act as orderlies to senior officers, stand guards and watches, and man a number of the gun positions. Hall's day had started down on the third deck with guard duty at the brig, the 0400 to 0800 watch. He'd been relieved early, at 7:30, because he was scheduled for liberty at eight. But he'd stayed for breakfast and pulled mop-up duty. So he'd miss the first liberty launch and catch one a little later.

The brig consisted of seven cells and at the moment held four prisoners, all of them sailors. Three were confined for relatively minor violations, and one was awaiting transfer to the navy prison at Portsmouth, Virginia. What he'd been charged with, when you got down to it, was homosexuality.

The guard Richard Hall had relieved at 4 AM was his twin brother, Harold.

"In those days the navy and marines encouraged brothers serving together," says Richard Hall, sitting in the living room of that ninth-floor Sheridan Road condo, now his and his wife's home. Outside is the lake, gray green and choppy. "They had whole families on some ships. We had another set of brothers among the 80 marines, the Coffey brothers, but they were not twins. We liked it. You always had someone to talk to or go on liberty with."

The navy kept the practice going until November 1942, when the cruiser Juneau was torpedoed off Guadalcanal, and five brothers named Sullivan all died.

The Halls were identical twins. They were born in Kansas City on December 3, 1922. Their mother dressed them alike and the boys didn't mind, continuing the practice as they grew older, even at Rockhurst College, a Jesuit school in Kansas City.

They enlisted in the marines in the summer of 1941. Richard says, "We joined the day after Hitler invaded Russia. Everybody was apprehensive about the situation. The draft was on and war was coming and we were going to go one way or the other. We were doomed. The Depression was on and there were no jobs. We thought by joining we could have a little better selection than by being drafted. We chose the marines because one day we saw a recruiter in his dress blues and he was a knockout. We didn't know much about it. You know how stupid you are as a teenager. We never thought when we went in we'd be on a battleship." A picture of the twins with the commanding officer of the recruiting station ran in a Kansas City paper. "It was extraordinary," Richard says. "Papers had this fixation for twins. Some of those towns, of course, didn't have a lot of news."

The Hall brothers were on a crew that operated a five-inch gun on the upper deck. There were ten of these secondary batteries, each one situated in a casemate, a kind of semicircular turret with a large opening from which the gun protruded. The gun crews ate at their stations. For meals, there were tables that folded down from the casement overhead and benches that collapsed.

For breakfast, Richard often ate no more than cereal from a little box. But the ship also offered scrambled eggs, sometimes bacon, and often the staple of all the services, chipped beef on toast--or SOS. Snacks were available at a soda fountain belowdecks for those who had the price--a nickel for soft drinks and candy bars, a dime for sandwiches and milk shakes.

The gun crews had chores at mealtime. One man went down and brought up the chow in metal containers; another swabbed the deck afterward, as Richard was doing now. Harold was in the casemate too, manning the gun.

"Swabbing was a dirty job. The floors of the casemates were linoleum. You used a solution of freshwater and creosol. You couldn't use salt water. You could use salt water on the teak decks but not on linoleum. There was plenty of salt water, it came out of the mains, but freshwater was limited--we made our own aboard ship. So you only used a little and you mixed it with creosol. It was well disinfected, I guess, but it was a murky, syrupy mixture."

The casemate Richard was swabbing overlooked the quarterdeck, the rear area of the main deck that held two of the West Virginia's four main batteries. These were the great enclosed turrets containing the ship's mammoth 16-inch guns, two per turret. These guns made the West Virginia one of the most heavily armed ships in the world, capable of firing shells almost 20 miles. Strategic theory of the time held that this firepower made battleships the most important vessels in the fleet. This thinking was based on the experiences of the British and Germans during the Battle of Jutland in World War I, but it was flawed. Modern airplanes could deliver shells much farther than the largest shipborne guns.

This was a fact not fully appreciated at the time, not even by the carrier-based Japanese pilots now a few seconds from the West Virginia. It was lost on Richard Hall.

"I was thinking, there's plenty of freshwater in port, so why don't they stock up on it and we can use more for swabbing? Then the bugle call sounded. That's what I was doing when the war started, holding a mop in my hands."

The "Now hear this!" announcements on battleships were preceded by bugle calls that Richard and Harold Hall--who'd both been on the West Virginia only six weeks--were still trying to memorize. This morning the West Virginia was sitting in the harbor with 69 other combat ships and 24 auxiliaries. Fifty-five percent of the officers--many senior--were ashore at 7:55 when the first Japanese planes arrived. The bugle Richard heard while he was lamenting the freshwater situation called "fire and rescue." "There was the bugle, then the announcement 'Away fire and rescue team!' And then, I think, we had just heard the fire and rescue call when almost immediately they sounded the bugle call for general quarters."

Richard Hall is modest and honest. He tries to separate what he is sure he experienced from memories influenced by what he's since read or heard. He selects his words carefully.

"Everybody ran to their battle stations, and the ship went into condition zed, which means all hatches are locked and watertight. We were already at our battle station and we just yanked the canvas off our sights. I didn't think much about it because we were continually having exercises and drills. In the back of your mind you're thinking, 'I'm just about to go on liberty and they pull something like this.'

"To this day I can't remember how we knew that it was an attack, not a drill. I can't say what the exact sequence was. I know among things that happened were we heard an explosion, there was some information over the loudspeaker, a 'Now hear this' followed by additional information. It seemed they kept rectifying the announcements.

"Then at one point the marine orderly from the bridge came in and said, 'The Japs are bombing Ford Island!' It was Richard Fiske, who was also a bugler. He had seen the explosions from the deck. We couldn't see over there. We could just see our opposite gun on the Tennessee."

Ford Island sat roughly in the middle of Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of yards of water separated it from some points on the mainland, thousands of yards from others. The island housed a naval air station and all the buildings needed to operate it. Across the water to the east were docks, barracks, support buildings, Hickam Field, a huge ammunition building, and acres of oil tanks called the tank farm, which supplied fuel to the fleet. Seven miles inland, down past the Dole Pineapple canning plant and the sugarcane fields, was Honolulu.

The ships were grouped in the harbor. Closest to Ford Island were the battleships to the east and the heavy cruisers to the west. The battleships stood quite close to shore, moored fore and aft to quays, heavy blocks of concrete on telephone pole pilings. A long line of quays formed Battleship Row. The ships commonly moored in pairs. One ship would tie up to a set of quays and another would be lashed by cable outboard of the first. They were maneuvered in and out of the harbor by tugs.

Combat ships in port always face the harbor entrance, which at Pearl meant facing south, toward the channel to the sea. On December 7 there were seven ships in Battleship Row. They were: the California, closest to the channel and docked alone, a ways ahead of the others; the Oklahoma, lashed to the Maryland; the West Virginia, lashed to the Tennessee; the Arizona, behind the Tennessee, with the tender Vestal outboard; and the Nevada, last in line, behind the Arizona. An eighth wagon, the Pennsylvania, was across the harbor in dry dock.

The outboard ships with their port sides exposed--the California, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Nevada--were most vulnerable to torpedo attack. Torpedo planes came in low across the harbor. The Arizona, protected outboard by the Vestal, was doomed by an armor-piercing bomb dropped by dive-bombers that swooped down vertically at the same time the torpedo bombers were striking horizontally. A bomb with a delayed fuse penetrated her bow behind the main batteries and blew up the forward magazine. She also took a torpedo that went under the shallow keel of the Vestal. The combination of hits broke her in two and she sank where she sat, at quay F-7.

She's still there, with 1,103 of her crew.

"Our gun was on the starboard side looking at a corresponding gun on the Tennessee. It was not an antiaircraft gun. It didn't elevate enough to get planes. Some ships had all-purpose guns, and later all ships had them, but we didn't. The antiaircraft batteries on the boat deck above us were firing nonstop. They fired until their barrels got so hot it melted the paint on them. We had to man our posts. I was the pointer on the gun, responsible for lining up the sights for up-and-down elevation. My brother was the trainer--he lined up sights for side-to-side movement. We moved the gun by turning wheels. When everything was lined up the gun was fired in coordination with other guns from central fire control, or it could be fired independently.

"I saw a Jap plane fly by. I don't how they could fly low enough so we could see him coming from the stern and then over us between ships and out beyond the bow. I could see one figure prominently in the cockpit, and there was at least one other, and maybe two. It was strictly a navy plane, with light silver gray color and the red orange insignia.

"At one point I saw shell fragments denting the casemate where I was standing. I got down off the gun platform and the gun captain gave me a dirty look. I got back up. It was scary there with all the fragments bouncing around. And it seemed we could be of better use somewhere else, since we couldn't do anything with our gun. But I stayed on the platform. I was more afraid of authority than I was the enemy.

"There was an explosion and a violent shaking of the ship, and I remember thinking, 'That must have been some explosion.' I couldn't imagine anything shaking us like that, a 31,000-ton ship. People got knocked over. I had hold of the wheel so I didn't. Then the Arizona blew up. We were the closest gun on the upper deck to it. It was docked behind the Tennessee, and flames just licked into the opening where our gun was. That terrified us even more. We figured we would be next.

"Then it began to take a terrible list to port and we all slid across the linoleum deck. It was all slimy and slippery with seawater. We were lying against the casement bulkhead. The lights went out. There was nothing else coming over the loudspeaker. There were metal fragments bouncing around."

Richard and his gun crew couldn't know the overall situation, but a couple of junior officers had made some fortuitous decisions during the first minute of the attack. At 7:55 a Japanese bomb had hit a hangar on Ford Island. The officer of the deck of the West Virginia, an ensign named Roman Brooks who saw the explosion from an angle, thought it took place on the California, the first in the line of battleships moored next to the island. Following navy procedure to aid ships in distress, Brooks sounded the fire and rescue call. This got hundreds of hands moving topside and saved their lives, because the West Virginia was about to take several torpedo hits below the waterline.

A lieutenant named White was one of the officers moving topside. He saw a Japanese torpedo bomber in the act of launching. Sounding the general alarm before the torpedo hit, he got the ship buttoned up.

In quick succession the West Virginia was hit by seven torpedoes and two bombs. Water rushed into mammoth holes on its port side. On the bridge the captain, Mervyn Bennion, was disemboweled by a piece of metal that flew over from the Tennessee when a bomb hit it, but refused to be evacuated. The inclinometer showed a list of 15 degrees. Unless corrected for, such a list will increase until the ship capsizes, which is what happened to the Oklahoma, docked in front of the West Virginia. The correction called for is counterflooding, in this case filling voids located deep on the starboard side. It may not save a ship but it will cause it to sink slowly on an even keel, allowing crewmen to escape.

Counterflooding was ordered but the word couldn't be passed because the electricity had gone out. The assistant gunnery officer, Lieutenant C.V. Ricketts, raced to the third deck and oversaw the counterflooding, a procedure he knew because he'd once been damage control officer. By this time the inclinometer was past 28 degrees and off the scale, but the list immediately began to decrease. "It's wonderful how the ship came to an even keel," says Richard Hall. "We were still tied up to the Tennessee. We sank evenly."

The Oklahoma, hit by three torpedoes before it could button up and counterflood, kept listing until her mast hit bottom and half the bottom of her hull was in the air. She lost 420 men. The West Virginia, harder hit, lost 105.

Ordered to stay in their gun casement, the Hall twins felt out of the fight. Above them, crewmen were pitching in, passing ammunition to the antiaircraft batteries. Because of the list of the ship, two rows of passers had to be organized--one to actually pass and the other to hold up the passers.

In another part of the ship, Private First Class John Coffey, another marine with a brother aboard, also felt out of the fight. He and several other marines were on guard duty in officers' country, the area below the quarterdeck where the officers' cabins were. Coffey had been guarding the executive officer's cabin when the XO and the captain headed for the bridge. The first sergeant told Coffey to stay put. There'd been some pilfering in the area.

"It was about that time the first torpedo hit," Coffey recalled later. "We began to list to port and take water. There was an explosion outside, fire shot up and caught on the curtains. I put it out, then there was nothing to do. The war was going on without us who were standing around officers' country. Finally an ensign came in and got us up on the quarterdeck to evacuate wounded."

The order to abandon ship was passed by word of mouth. "An officer, I think, came by with some official word," says Richard. "It was kind of odd. I remember thinking, 'This is going to make history. This doesn't happen every day, sinking a battleship. We're the biggest thing in the navy. We're the first line of defense.'

"My brother and myself tried to stay together. We went out the casemate door, and fragments were flying and bouncing all around. I saw a man's calf get sheared off--that's just how razor sharp they were. We wondered if the magazine was being flooded. There were tons of cordite in the magazines for the main batteries.

"It was pretty simple to abandon ship. We let ourselves down with a line to the armor belt. That was an extra covering put on the hull at the water level for extra protection. It stuck out 16 inches--it was like a little platform you could step on, and then step over to the Tennessee's armor belt--and then we were helped aboard by guys on the Tennessee. We crossed the deck and then went down a line."

On shore they found a group of sailors from the West Virginia. Though the ship had been ordered abandoned, it was not going under. Pearl Harbor is only 40 feet deep, and ships that sank by no means disappeared. They were tilted and twisted, burning and capsized, but visible. The West Virginia was burning, and so far as the men knew was in danger of exploding, but it was not underwater. The group onshore formed a boarding party to go back and rescue the wounded.

"It wasn't a volunteer thing exactly," says Richard. "It was just a--a movement. Something that was needed. We went back the same way we came, 12 or 15 of us. There were no other marines. A petty officer assumed authority.

"We crossed to amidships and then went forward to a hatch to do the rescuing. There was fire amidships and behind. We were on the port side, where the planes had an angle at us. There were bodies all around, some dead, some wounded. The ship was at a list and there was oil and seawater all around. We were directed to a hatch and then to various parts of the lower decks where we could find wounded. There were no lights but we could hear moaning.

"We began to haul them towards hatches. The difficult part was getting them up the ladders. I was five-eleven and weighed about a hundred and forty. We needed more than one guy to move a body up a ladder.

"On deck we tried to get them to a safe place. We had to pause every so often to avoid getting machine-gunned. Bullets were bouncing off the deck, but the pings and clangs of shells were pretty much drowned out by all the other sounds--explosions, airplanes, guns, and especially the roar of the fire, which was coming closer to us. Someone would see or sense danger and start running and we would all move. We were using the barbette of the number two gun for cover."

The number two gun was in the top main turret in the bow. The number one was below it. Three and four were back on the quarterdeck.

"There were a number of boats fighting the fire--tugs, a garbage scow, maybe a minesweeper--and there were other rescue boats. We hauled the wounded to the side of the ship on mattress pads. These were thin pads you'd put inside of a hammock. We put the bodies over the side to the rescue boats. We had to handle them kind of roughly. I dropped one guy so bad he hit his head. I don't know how badly he was hurt, but what can you do?

"There were a lot of damaged people everywhere--shoes with feet in them, other parts of bodies lying around. You become so scared you develop a kind of tunnel vision. You tried not to look at the injured, see just what you had to see, because you had to keep going. There were men dying, and I didn't know if you should try to baptize people. As a young person, how much do you know? What should you do?

"There was a frustration in being bombed. You didn't know where to go to be safe, because you really didn't know what a safe place was. You could go to a place you thought was safe and be clobbered. That was what was so terrifying, not knowing a safe place."

The fire was moving forward, getting closer, so hot it was buckling the teak deck they dragged the wounded across. The magazines beneath them had flooded, but the men didn't know it.

"We were afraid the magazine would go. We decided to get the hell off. It was a unanimous decision. You didn't need some kind of order. It was time. There were men down there still moaning. We were too hurried to get them off. We had delayed too long. Once we got out of there, that was it for them. We knew we were denying someone assistance, but it just wasn't possible. We had to go."

The Halls felt a little isolated working with sailors. "The navy guys didn't know us from beans." In a pinch, the Halls felt, the sailors would look out for themselves ahead of the marines. Escape onto the Tennessee was now impossible, as the West Virginia had sunk much lower in the water and was getting lower all the time. The twins struck out on their own.

"I was deathly afraid of abandoning ship, but in a way it was a relief. You were on your own and out from under the thumb of that kind of authority. You could make decisions for yourself. We decided to go off the bow. We didn't know how long the attack was going to last, and we didn't want to get on another ship. We thought the best thing was to get ashore. The bow was just a little ways out of the water. We stripped down to our skivvies and khakis. My brother couldn't get one of his shoes off, so he went in with one on. We slid down a line into the water and began to swim. In high school mother wanted us to learn to swim, and we took lessons at another high school. We weren't distance swimmers or anything, but it was enough. You'd be surprised how many sailors and marines couldn't swim.

"We tried to select a route that we could escape being burned. The water was loaded with oil, and some was burning in patches. We saw a doughnut raft with netting and planking and nobody on it. We hung on to rest, but we didn't want to try and paddle it. It was a dangerous place to be. The Japs were strafing. We kept going."

The shore, 75 yards away, presented another problem: coral. It lacerated their knees and hands as they climbed over it. Exhausted and wary, bleeding, covered in black, slimy oil, they finally climbed onto the sand. They made their way to a navy dispensary, thinking they could be treated there for their cuts. But a bomb had landed, and when they arrived they found dead and wounded scattered about a courtyard.

"We took one look and said, 'This isn't for us,' and we went back to the shore. There was all kinds of debris from the Arizona--parts of unburned cordite that hadn't exploded and a big piece of the overhead sticking out of the sand. People were grouping by ships and we hooked up with a detachment from the West Virginia."

It was not yet 10 AM. It had been 8 AM when the order was given to abandon the West Virginia, an order already given on the Arizona and the Oklahoma. In two hours the U.S. Navy had lost 2,008 men, more than half of them from the Arizona. That was three times as many men as the navy had lost in the previous two wars combined--the Spanish-American and World War I. Total casualties for all the services and civilians were 2,403 killed and 1,178 wounded.

No marines aboard the West Virginia were killed. The Coffey brothers, John and Tom, reunited on Ford Island. John, who'd been outside the captain's cabin when the attack began, jumped over the port side into oil--"I made a big mistake"--and was pulled out by a launch. Tom, like most of the marines, never got wet. They crossed to shore by walking on a fueling line to the Tennessee.

Richard Fiske, the bugler who told Richard Hall's gun crew the war had started, went back to the bridge. He can be seen standing outside it in a famous photograph of the West Virginia billowing multicolored smoke as fire and rescue vessels pump water into it. He lives in Hawaii now and often plays taps at ceremonies aboard the USS Arizona Memorial.

Captain Bennion was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously. Lieutenant Ricketts, who ordered the counterflooding, became an admiral.

Tom Coffey was killed in the battle of Tinian.

The brig was no place to be when the attack started. It was close to the spot where the first torpedo hit. If he hadn't been relieved early from his watch, Richard Hall would have been standing there. The man who relieved him, George Gatchel, was lucky. He was blown sideways through a hatch. Bruised and stunned, he found himself on the other side of a mass of twisted steel and he could not get back to the cells to open them. Weeks later, divers located the skeletons of the drowned prisoners behind locked doors.

Richard has no recollection of what happened after he hooked up onshore with other marines from the West Virginia. One of the hardest things to cleanse one's body of is the kind of sticky crude oil that he'd swum through. But the next thing Richard knows, it was gone.

"My memory is blanked until the evening. I can't tell you how I got the oil off. I just know that it was getting dark and we were cleaned up and had fresh uniforms and were digging in at the beach. We had World War I-type helmets, an ammunition belt with a canteen and a bayonet. I had a bandolier of bullets crisscrossed across my chest. I felt like Pancho Villa. I don't know how we got there or why. Marines go to the beach, I guess. There were rumors of paratrooper landings. I guess we were going to repulse an invasion."

It was a nervous night, with one tragic accident. Six navy Dauntless dive-bombers returning to Ford Island after dark were fired on by jumpy antiaircraft gunners. Four were shot down, their crews killed.

"Later that night we went on a sort of cursory patrol. When we came back I took the five-round clip out of my rifle, but I forgot there was still a bullet in the chamber. I pulled the trigger and fired the round off. Right in front of the sergeant. I'm lucky I didn't shoot his head off. He was understanding about it. Things were a little tense. It was the only shot I got off all day."

A wry smile crosses Richard's face.

"It's a heck of a thing to say. I couldn't fire the five-inch gun, I couldn't get to the 50-calibers to shoot, I went into the drink, and the only round I got off all day was a mistake."

The war, of course, didn't end for Richard and Harold Hall at Pearl Harbor. It didn't end for the battleships either.

Every one was hit, and the Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia, California, and Nevada were sunk. The Tennessee, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were damaged. All but the Arizona, which became a national monument, and the capsized Oklahoma, considered too old and damaged to repair, were salvaged. All the repaired ships saw combat again.

So did Richard and Harold Hall. In January of 1945 they were put on different ships in a convoy that left Hawaii for Iwo Jima. Richard was on LST 792, which was carrying an indispensable cargo--radar for the airfield at Iwo Jima, which the marines were about to invade. The radar was supposed to be landed on D day, February 19, so that when the airfield was taken it could become operational immediately. The marines were told this would be a three-day battle. It lasted five weeks. The radar could not be landed until D plus 4, and as they approached the beach, Richard could see the flag that had just been raised on Mount Suribachi snapping in the wind. Under heavy enemy mortar fire, he hit the beach and began digging in. A marine came running up and flopped beside him. It was Harold, who had landed on D day and like Richard was now a member of the party distributing supplies from the beach. Harold knew the number of Richard's ship.

"How you doing?" he asked. "Just wanted to say hello." Then, under fire, he scurried back to his own hole.

For five weeks Iwo Jima was the most dangerous place on earth. Few who stayed long thought they would get out alive. This was the only Pacific invasion in which the U.S. suffered more casualties than the Japanese--28,686 American troops and 20,000 Japanese, although all of those Japanese died. In six years in Vietnam, the army's First Cavalry Division, one of the hardest-fighting units in that war, lost 5,000 dead. In 35 days on Iwo Jima, the Fifth Amphibious Corps of the marines lost 7,500.

At one point Richard was dug in next to a six-foot-high pyramid of limbs that had been stacked on the beach for the graves and registration people to sort through.

"Every time a mortar would hit, somebody would be killed," he says. "The mortar would just dismember a person. A mortar round hit one man and his head was blown off and his feet were blown off at the ankles. His body tumbled over like a bowling pin. You become callous or you couldn't get your work done. I developed that tunnel vision again, trying not to see more than I had to."

By April 1 most of the marines had left the island, his brother included, but Richard stayed because he was in the ordnance company, which was disposing of unexploded ammunition.

"We took the duds out and dumped them in the sea, but it was dangerous because sometimes a shell would explode and men were killed. I was just dead, I was so resolved I was never going to get off that island."

After 48 days, Richard was relieved.

"I don't remember going back. I don't even remember what type of ship I was on. I don't even remember if I had a backpack or not. I had my carbine. I found my brother once in Hawaii and we had our picture taken, but I didn't see him again until after the war."

After the war the twins returned to Kansas City and to college on the GI Bill, no longer dressing alike. Harold went three years, then dropped out to get married and go to work. Richard majored in English and had plans to be a teacher, but after graduating from Rockhurst College he took a job with the Government Records Center in Kansas City. He married in 1964, and in 1966 he and his wife, Lucia, moved to Oak Park, where they raised a son who's now 28. Richard took a job as an employment counselor for the State of Illinois, and retired in 1982. The Halls lived for a while in the southwest, but this year they came back to the Chicago area, and found their new place along the lake. Lucia still works as a psychologist in a mental hospital.

Harold lives in Overland Park, Kansas, outside Kansas City. The brothers phone each other frequently and see each other when they can. They occasionally go to reunions of Pearl Harbor survivors or West Virginia veterans.

"I don't go as frequently as I did," says Richard. "There're not enough marines anymore, and the navy guys still think it's 1941 and you're on guard duty or something and giving them orders."

Richard Hall has a low-key sense of accomplishment about what he did in the war; in 60 years he'd never discussed it in any detail. He fought at two of the most famous battles in the history of the United States. The battles of Pearl Harbor and Iwo Jima pressed two indelible images into the national pysche--images of burning battleships and a rising flag.

"You get to the point of being almost insane with terror from the shelling and everything, and I don't know how close we were coming to that, but if you do survive you have that old feeling of why you survived and others were blown up. You can't dwell on it too much. You do push it back in your mind.

"What you do remember a lot of is the horseshit. If I had known there was going to be so much guard duty I don't think I would have joined the marines. And for the life of me I can't remember how I got that oil off."

On the night of October 24, 1944, the old battleships--the West Virginia, California, Tennessee, Maryland, and the Pennsylvania, all now relics--waited in Leyte Gulf as a Japanese task force came down the narrow Surigao Strait. It was a classic naval position called the T, where the Americans had all their guns firing broadside as the Japanese ships came in line. The West Virginia was first to open fire, and before dawn two Japanese battleships and three destroyers were sunk and one cruiser and destroyer badly damaged. It was the end of an era in naval warfare, the last engagement in which airpower played no part. One of the destroyers that participated in the action was the Bennion, named after the fallen skipper of the West Virginia.

"In no battle of the entire war did the United States Navy make so nearly a complete sweep as in that of Surigao Strait," wrote naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison. After dawn, crewmen belowdecks on the old battleships went topside to survey the damage done.

It was satisfying revenge for Pearl Harbor.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.

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