Port Townsend resident Tom Berg visits Hawaii to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Port Townsend resident Tom Berg visits Hawaii to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Port Townsend man in Hawaii for 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor attack

HONOLULU — Port Townsend resident Tom Berg remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, as if it had happened yesterday.

‘Very clear to me’

“It is very clear to me,” Berg, 94, said over the phone from Hawaii, where he is visiting to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the attack.

“I have forgotten everything else — my memory isn’t very good — but Pearl Harbor is very vivid to me.”

Berg, an Aberdeen native, moved to Jefferson County in 1986 and lives with his wife, Lesa Barnes, in Port Townsend.

He enlisted in 1940 when he was 18, celebrating his birthday in July after graduating from high school, and requested assignment to the USS Arizona where a friend was stationed.

Instead, he was assigned to the USS Tennessee.

On that fateful morning so many years ago, Berg — a crew member serving in one of eight boiler rooms aboard the USS Tennessee — went topside for some fresh air after preparing his workspace for inspection below deck.

“About a quarter to 8, we went topside and walked throughout the fo’c’s’le [forecastle] deck,” Berg said.

The surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor commenced at 7:48 a.m. local time, according to historians.

“As I came down the ladder to the main deck, I saw this airplane coming out of this strafing run on the north end of Ford Island, and I was looking past the [USS] Arizona to see this airplane,” Berg said.

“He pulled out of his dive and he flew right over me.”

Berg said he “looked up at the plane and here was a great big red circle under the wings. My thought was so far away from any Japanese being around. I thought, ‘Well, the Army Air Forces [are] really decorating their planes to make [their] military exercises authentic.’”

Unconcerned, Berg returned below deck to his living quarters in the “B” Division.

“I sat down on a bench in my boiler division living space,” he said.

Berg did not know that Japanese planes — led by torpedo bombers — had begun their attack, specifically targeting the battleships moored in Battleship Row southeast of Ford Island as dive bombers attacked U.S. air bases across Oahu, according to historians.

The USS Tennessee was a nested pair with the USS West Virginia and moored inboard toward the island, according to http://worldwar2headquarters.com.

To Tennessee’s stern was the USS Arizona, and the USS Maryland was just ahead of her, berthed inboard the USS Oklahoma.

Because the USS Tennessee was moored on the other side of the USS West Virginia, she was protected from the initial Japanese torpedo attack. The USS West Virginia was not as lucky.

When “the first torpedo hit the West Virginia, [it] slammed against the Tennessee and that boosted me right out [of the] bench that I was sitting on,” Berg said.

“We knew something was wrong, so we ran to the access plates to get down in the engineering spaces and a couple of other torpedo hits, I think, shook the ship so much that many people … fell down on the decks because of the jolt.”

Within five minutes of the first attack, crew members aboard the battleship began to fire on the enemy planes with its anti-aircraft batteries and machine guns, according to http://worldwar2headquarters.com.

Meanwhile, Berg and his crew “got down in the boiler room and proceeded to light the burners, which we always do in general quarters [to] get the ship ready,” he said.

Berg said he was the compartment talker for Boiler Room 7, adding his job was to speak to a crew member on the pilot deck.

Stuck in the bowels of the ship, Berg and his crewmates could not see the attack unfold — relying entirely on reports sent over the communications system from the man on the pilot deck, Berg said.

“He was describing the scene, what was going on, and that was the devastating part,” Berg said.

“He told about the West Virginia sinking, the Arizona had fires on it and the Oklahoma … was turning over and they were bombing other ships near the shipyard. I am relaying all of this information to the other five guys that [were] in the boiler room.”

Shortly after 8 a.m., a bomb hit the forward ammunition magazine of the Arizona, causing a massive explosion.

“It just shattered the front end of the ship,” Berg said.

“The explosion was so great that it caused concussion down our smokestack down into our boiler, which blew the fire [from] the six burners on each boiler … out into the operating space and I guess singed a lot of eyebrows.”

The flames were gone in a flash, being sucked back into the smokestack after a few seconds, Berg said.

The USS Tennessee was hit by two bombs at about 8:30 a.m. but by 9:30 a.m. was ready to get underway thanks to the efforts of the eight boiler crews below.

Berg would not emerge topside until later that night, he said.

“We had already drank the 5-gallon bucket of water that we keep in every fire room,” Berg said.

“They sent me topside to refill it and it was already dark.”

When Berg emerged, he observed a scene straight out of hell.

“Honolulu was completely blacked out and the only light there was [originated from] the fires on the West Virginia … and the Arizona,” Berg said.

The Arizona had sunk with a loss of more than 1,100 men, which was more than half the casualties suffered by the entire fleet in the attack, according to historians.

In contrast, only five men died on the Tennessee, one a friend of Berg’s, he said.

That man’s name was Eugene Oscar Roe, Berg said. He died manning a gun at a topside station where Berg had been a crew member before being transferred to the boiler room.

All told, 2,403 American service members were killed and 1,178 wounded during that day, according to historians.

The USS Tennessee was trapped at her berth for 10 days before being freed, according to historians, and four days later, she set sail for the West Coast to be repaired.

Berg was aboard and was transferred to a submarine unit stateside, where he would remain for the rest of the war, he said.

“I was pretty lucky,” he said.

After serving in the Navy for six years, Berg earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He worked as a professional mechanical engineer for 16 years in the Bremerton shipyard and for 12 years at Naval Torpedo Station, Keyport, before retiring in 1977.

Now back in Honolulu for the annual National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, something he attends every year, Berg on Monday took a tour of Battleship Row with other Pearl Harbor survivors and veterans.

“I look over the side to see if the oil is still escaping, and I think that is pretty well gone by now,” he said.

“I think about all the bodies that are still down in the ship.”

In addition to the vivid memories made during the attack, Berg said he also keeps a memento reminding him of that day: a copy of a Stradivari violin that escaped damage during the attack because it was hidden beneath his pea coat in his quarters below the waterline.

Berg said that as a member of the Port Townsend Community Orchestra, he still performs on the instrument he once smuggled aboard the USS Tennessee.


Features Editor Chris McDaniel can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56650, or at cmcdaniel@peninsuladailynews.com.

Tom Berg visits Hawaii to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Tom Berg visits Hawaii to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

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