Pearl Harbor veteran grateful to survive
A gangly 19-year-old farm kid from Hooper, Neb., Wayne Hagerbaumer expected to see the world when he signed up for a six-year stint with the Navy.
What he hadn’t counted on was seeing so much at once.
But as his ship lay docked in the Hawaiian waters of Pearl Harbor on a quiet December morning in 1941, it turned into a day this veteran has never forgotten.
WHEN WAYNE LEFT the farm, he couldn’t get a job so he signed up with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) working timber trails. “Then I finally joined the Navy in January 1941. I intended to make a career of it.”
After basic training, Wayne was sent to radio school. Then a ten-day leave led him back home helping with the hot July wheat harvest before boarding the USS Phoenix that would take him to Ford Island’s Pearl Harbor. But the sailors could sense turbulence brewing.
“We got halfway out there and it was all blackout in the ship. They must have been suspicious that something was going on.”
In August, the young sailor was transferred to the USS Argonne, a repair ship where he worked as a radio operator.
ON THE MORNING of December 7, 1941, the Argonne was berthed in the first repair slip at the north end of 1010 dock, with the minesweeper Tern alongside.
Sailors were sleeping in their quarters aboard their ships. Some were sleeping on land, taking advantage of the cool night breezes.
At 7:02 a.m. at the Opana Radar Station on Oahu, two privates saw something on their screen that looked like planes flying toward them. Opana’s was the only radar turned on, and then only for training. The other radar stations had been turned off as part of standard procedure.
The privates reported what they saw and were told by the commanding officer that a squadron of American planes was due in from California. Reasoning that the privates were seeing American planes, he told them not to worry.
“It was just a normal Sunday morning,” Wayne recalled. “I was supposed to go on watch at 8 o’clock and was talking to another guy about five minutes before that. We were on the upper deck and could see planes coming down. We looked across to the Port Island area and seen planes coming down like that,” his hand motioning straight downward. “We thought they were probably our own planes just practicing, you could see the bomb drop – looked like a bowling ball. Then the first thing you know, they came by the ship so close I could see the pilot in the plane with his goggles. It was just kind of a helpless feeling. You’re standing out there and you don’t have your gun or anything. I’d never seen a plane shot down.”
The alarm was rung.
The first bombs were from dive-bombers dropped on the hangars. Then a torpedo plane coming in over the island dropped a torpedo that sent the ship upward in a fiery explosion of splinters.
Heavy bombing and strafing attacks quickly consumed the air with sheets of flames and fires, and the boiling blackness from burning fuel oil.
“There were explosions and smoke and fire and everything,” Wayne said.
RUSHING BACK TO the radio shack on the Argonne, Wayne began getting the word out and responding to incoming messages. “I was just 19 and hadn’t been in less than a year. I didn’t know very much,” he chuckles at the thought now.
But his training proved invaluable.
“We were getting messages all the time. One of the men in the receiving area was holding his headphones over his head to block out the noise, it was deafening.”
The first wave of 183 planes attacked with deadly force; 167 planes followed in a second wave about an hour later.
Wayne managed to remain safe in the Argonne. “They were after the battleships and cruisers and destroyers. The repair ship wasn’t very important to them.”
Directly in view of the Argonne was the USS Arizona. The Arizona sustained eight bomb hits, one hit exploding the black powder magazine, which in turn set off adjacent fiery explosions that burned for more than two days. The explosions consumed 1,177 of the 1,400 men on board.
The Japanese managed to sink or damage 188 aircraft, eight battleships, three destroyers, three cruisers and a minelayer. In addition to the aerial bombings, six Japanese midget submarines participated in the attack, dropping torpedoes which had been modified with wooden fins to run their course in Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters. One sub was sunk when it attempted to sneak into the harbor just a few hours before the aerial attack started. With very few American soldiers ready to fight on cue, the damage to the Japanese navy was very small.
It seemed as if everything on Ford Island was burning; over 2,400 people were killed, 68 of those civilians.
“The attack felt like it lasted eight to ten hours. It looked like a graveyard,” Wayne said. “We knew it let up, but I didn’t think it was over. We were getting reports on the radio that the troops were landing. The Japanese on the beach were probably transmitting that. That night there were more explosions, but we were shooting at our own planes, it was just confusion.”
It was a situation that made a Midwest teenager think twice about the future.
“I didn’t think I’d get out alive. When we were in boot camp you could take out $10,000 term life insurance, and I took out a $1,000. After Pearl Harbor I took out the other nine.”
TWO MONTHS LATER, Wayne boarded the repair ship the USS Regal to Auckland, New Zealand. After a couple months they proceeded to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, close to the New Guinea campaign. He was moved from island to island and transferred after a year to the USS Blue Ridge, a communications ship, for over a year.
Meantime, Wayne’s mother – a former school teacher – devised a plan to outsmart the Navy and keep track of her son since his letters back home were censored. Incoming mail, however, was not.
“My mother made a list of all the islands in the Pacific and put a girl’s name on each one. She sent the code to my brother – who was in the Pacific on a destroyer, too. If Australia was named Mary, I’d say I got a letter from Aunt Mary two weeks ago.”
Wayne continued as a radio operator in the war theater; however, he didn’t experience any bombings. When an alert occurred “you’d be ready for something, but it never materialized where we were at.”
IN THE FALL of 1944, Wayne was shipped back to Chicago for advanced radio school and contracted strep throat and rheumatic fever. He had enlisted for six years but after four years and seven months, he was given a medical discharge.
“I didn’t request it,” he said of the discharge, “but three years in the tropics and then to Chicago in late November – and I think that’s the coldest place there was – was probably what made me sick.”
The discharged sailor went to school in Lincoln on a G.I. Bill, studying agriculture. He eventually settled in Genoa where he still resides.
Wayne attends Pearl Harbor reunions in Nebraska and still remembers the Morse Code as if he were still on the ship.
“It takes training to pick up those dashes and dots. I still know it. I’ll never forget that.”
He even managed to put out a newsletter while he was on ship, copying the news he’d get at night through Morse Code, especially the baseball scores. “I’d put a little newsletter out every day. The guys really appreciated it.”
Wayne proudly sports a Pearl Harbor survivor license plate on his car – an honor that was the last thing on his mind that morning of December 7.
“I was probably worried more about surviving than anything else at the time,” he reflected, “but didn’t realize it would eventually be a historic date.”