Not another ordinary day — Charles Bryd

Published 12:07 am Sunday, May 17, 2009

December 7, 1941 — It may have seemed like it was going to be just another ordinary day. US military men were just getting up and around to various breakfasts in various mess halls in and around Pearl Harbor. Aboard the USS California some of the men were just sitting down to a breakfast of “S.O.S. on toast.”

For Charles Byrd of Poplarville, it was that “S.O.S. on toast” that made him turn around that seemingly ordinary morning and leave that mess hall without breakfast — a decision that probably saved his life, because as we now know, December 7, 1941, was no ordinary day.

Looking for a home, a place with three squares a day, Byrd joined the Navy when he was just 17 years old. With his mother and father divorced and jobs hard to come by at that period in history, Byrd had actually tried to get into the Navy much sooner but was forced to wait till the age of 17.

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“What happened,” he said, “I joined the Navy on Canal Street at the Custom House. They sent me to San Diego.” That was in June, 1941.

Assigned to Company 4176, Byrd said they asked him what ship he wanted to be on and he promptly replied the USS California. “I wanted the USS California and I got it,” he said.

The USS California was the flagship of the battleforce, meaning it carried the flag and the commander of the fleet. “We had an admiral on that ship,” said Byrd.

Still new to the Navy, Byrd was aboard the ship as it returned from Long Beach to dock in Pearl Harbor on battleship row not far off Ford Island.

On December 5, 1941, men went about the business of hosing off the decks and cleaning the ship for inspections scheduled for the next day.

After inspections, on Saturday, December 6, Byrd said everyone who was eligible was sent to take their liberty ashore, but he remained on the ship because of his age.

“I couldn’t go,” he explained. “I was 17 and they kept me on there. That night, I stood watch on the third deck.”

At 5 a.m., on Sunday morning (December 7), he was sent to the galley to gather coffee for the men on the bow of the ship. After coffee service, sometime around 7 a.m., Byrd said he was told he was free to go and eat breakfast.

“And I left the galley… I come through the mess hall, I didn’t want to eat what I saw, they had S.O.S. on toast.”

He continued, “’Bout that time the boatswain mate blew a whistle, a shrill whistle, and said ‘Air raid, air raid, and no…’” Byrd said the boatswain completed that statement with foul language, something he never heard used on the intercom system before.

“Anyway, just as he said that, a bomb was dropped and it came right down through that mess hall to the third deck and exploded before I got out of that compartment and the deck was blown up under my feet and it killed some of the people in there but I don’t know how many — it knocked me down and somebody helped me get up… I went straight down to turret two. When I got in there I went to the bottom of the ship with the powder magazines.”

Upon his arrival at the bottom of the ship, Byrd said there was a second explosion and the ship rocked beneath his feet, lights dimmed and water started coming through the vent system. With two other sailors locked in the area with him, they watched the water creep up around them while probably fearing the worst.

Standing waist deep in the still rising water, Bryd said a hatch was suddenly opened and he and the others were able to come out. He said he always wondered why they were freed from what would have been their watery graves and later found out it was because the guns were being trained to starboard to help counterbalance the ship’s weight. He said it was the weight of these 14 inch guns — the California had 12 of them on board — that kept the ship from capsizing, such as what happened that day to the USS Oklahoma.

At some point Byrd noticed that men were abandoning ship. “… So I jumped over the side and I come up by a life raft. I wanted to get on that life raft but there was a sailor on that life raft and he said, ‘You can’t get on here. Swim,’ so I swam to Ford Island.”

Ford Island was a Naval training facility for Naval air pilots charged with manning Naval aircraft carriers and fighter planes, Byrd explained. It was there he was given a blanket. He said he remembers thick gun powder in the air, covering everything. He also said he recalled seeing massive numbers of bodies already laid out on tables in Ford Island’s mess hall.

After receiving dry clothing, he said “I went back in the hanger and helped them do as many things as I could do.”

With so much confusion in the wake of the Japanese attack that day, it was no wonder that Byrd, who had been sent to enjoy breakfast was reported missing.

Despite the fact that Byrd was very much alive and feeling virtually unscathed, two very different telegrams were sent home. His mom received a telegram, dated January 1, 1942, that reported him as a survivor. However, his dad received a telegram saying Byrd was “lost in action.” Shortly thereafter a story was printed in the Wiggins paper reporting him alive. The story said that he was “reported missing but later declared alive and well.”

Though Byrd’s back was injured and it would not be for several decades that he would discover the shrapnel lodged under his ribs, Byrd said his young age kept him going that day and throughout his Naval adventures. He kept working and didn’t complain.

Following his discharge from the Navy in 1947, due to health reasons, after one other job, Byrd would work for 34 years as a security officer for the railroad out of Algiers, La. Throughout those years he talked very little of the events on that December day in 1941 but he is talking now for posterity. He had a story published in the Hattiesburg American in 1998 and later this year, his story will be told on air during a Pearl Harbor special taped by Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

From his home in Poplarville, where he cares for his wife of 62 years, Byrd shared his story, his photographs and his memories. He has it all stored in a photo album which, like Byrd, was fortunate enough to survive the Pearl Harbor attack. Inside the precious cover are even more precious pictures of the ships on which he traveled the world, fellow sailors and his hula girl postcards from Hawaii which he still laughs about. “I was young,” he said.

He also keeps a picture of a submarine which came into the harbor during the attack and was captured, along with the telegrams received by both his mother and father with their conflicting accounts of what happened that day — that almost, but not really, ordinary day.