Aboard the battleship USS California, Dec. 7, 1941. The time: 7:55 a.m. Wayne Shelnut was nursing a hot cup of coffee after breakfast when someone screamed, “What is that airplane doing up there?” Wayne walked a few steps to the door and looked up. A plane with a big red ball painted on the fuselage passed over the California then dropped a bomb on Ford Island. General quarters sounded and startled sailors ran to their battle stations. 100 crewmembers would die and 62 others would be wounded. World War II had caught our Pacific Fleet sound asleep at a shallow anchorage called Pearl Harbor.
Born in 1915, Newton County resident and centenarian Wayne Shelnut picked cotton, tended garden, and cultivated crops on an 80-acre family farm near Chickasha, OK. Sorghum substituted for sugar. “It was hard work, a hard living,” he said. “Plus I walked 4 miles each way to school every day.” After high school, Wayne joined the government’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. “I thought they’d send me to new places,” Wayne said. His CCC job was 20 miles from Chickasha.
After a year in the CCC, brochures plugging the Army and Navy caught his eye.
“I decided to join,” Wayne said. “My family told me to join the Navy so I’d have a clean place to sleep and three square meals a day.” After testing and physical preliminaries, Wayne traveled to Dallas to be sworn in. He recalled, “From there we took a train to San Diego. Back then it was still a small town.” The year was 1934.
On basic training: “It wasn’t too bad,” he said. “We learned marching, discipline, the Navy way of doing things. We fired weapons at the end of training, 6 rounds at 100 yards, six more rounds at 600 yards. What troubled me most was the blazing sun. I stayed blistered. If someone touched my blistered nose they ran into trouble!”
After basic Wayne packed his hammock and sea bag, boarded a tanker to Long Beach, another ship to San Francisco Bay, then went aboard a cruiser destined for Puget Sound. “Well, sir,” he said. “We hit big sea swells, up and down, up and down, my first taste of seasickness. They put me on lifeboat watch….didn’t even know what that was.” The USS California awaited Wayne in Puget Sound. The battleship would be his home for the next seven years.
Wayne was assigned to the 5th Division as a gun crew member of a 5” 51 caliber broadside gun. They practiced almost daily loading a 50-pound projectile into the breach then shoving in bags of gun powder. A tug, usually about 3 to 4 miles out, pulled a target. Other duties included cleaning and maintaining the ship. Within the seven years, the California participated in exercises up and down the West Coast, visited Hawaii, went through the Panama Canal, to Cuba, and to New York City for the 1939 World’s Fair. As relations with Japan deteriorated the California was assigned to Pearl Harbor in May of 1940.
Leading up to ‘the date of infamy’ in Wayne’s own words: “We’d been out to sea many times from Pearl Harbor on exercises but on Dec. 5, 1941 we were heading back to port when someone claimed they saw a submarine. We stayed out all night looking for the sub but didn’t see one, so we returned to port the morning of the 6th, a Saturday. We tied up alone at Fox Berth One. The battleships moored behind us were the Tennessee and West Virginia, then Arizona and repair ship Vestal, then the Nevada. The Pennsylvania was in dry dock. We opened all hatches and the double-bottoms for an Admiral’s inspection on Monday which meant our watertight integrity was compromised.”
“The next morning the Japanese struck while I was sipping coffee. After sounding general quarters we did what we were trained to do, man our battle stations. Problem was, the ammo for our 5” and the anti-aircraft munitions had been stored below deck due to the upcoming inspection. So, we’re at our duty stations with no ammo and watching a nightmare unfold. The gun captain in the conning tower called down and ordered my gun crew to go below and retrieve ammo. I kept watch. Every man in my crew was below when the torpedo hit.”
NOTE: Two torpedoes detonated below the ship’s armor belt and one 250kg (551 pound) bomb hit the starboard upper deck, passed through the main deck and detonated on the armored second deck. Explosions set off an anti-aircraft magazine. Intense heat and smoke ended all the pumping operations to keep the ship afloat. After 3 days of continued flooding, the California settled into the muddy bottom of Pearl Harbor. Only her superstructure remained above water.
Wayne continued, “My entire crew perished below deck. I was the only survivor in my gun crew.” Another projectile, a near miss, ruptured the California’s bow plates. “That near-miss bomb almost got me,” he said. “A huge wall of water came up and covered me. I was hiding behind a bulkhead but everything else in the vicinity was washed overboard.”
Meanwhile, the gun captain in the conning tower witnessed a horrific event, as described by Wayne, “We all heard him say, ‘Oh, my God, a bomb just went down the Arizona’s smokestack.’ We didn’t see it, but we sure heard it.” At about 8:06am, the last bomb to hit Arizona ripped through her deck by Gun Turret II (not the smokestack) then detonated in or near the ammo magazine. The explosion lifted Arizona’s 32,000 tons out of the water before she settled to the bottom. Only 335 men from a crew of 1,512 survived.
And the horrors continued: “The Oklahoma was moored behind us,” he said. “I didn’t see the ship capsize but later we plainly heard the sailors trapped inside banging with hammers against the upturned hull hoping to be rescued. Most of those boys didn’t make it out.” Wayne paused a moment then continued. “You know, during all this I was still at my gun station. We didn’t know what to do. I saved a few men but we were all confused and I was alone. People started showing up but someone said to abandon ship….well, we did, but once on land we were ordered back to help secure heaving lines and anchor chains around our ship to keep her from capsizing. I couldn’t tell you when the first wave of Japanese planes stopped their attack and the second wave began their attack. It was a blur, total chaos.”
That evening hundreds of sailors and marines and army personnel lined up for chow in a bombed-out airplane hangar on Ford Island. “We slept on the ground that night,” Wayne said. “The next morning we searched for the missing. I conducted a roll call. Several never showed up, never answered…so many boys lost. On the third day I was issued a rifle and bayonet, assigned to anti-aircraft guns just outside the base, and slept in a tent for the next six months.”
The California was eventually refloated to fight another day, but Wayne was transferred back to the states to help commission a new battleship in New Orleans, the USS Alabama. “I was on the shakedown cruise and sailed with her up to Portland, ME then we returned to New Orleans. I had orders waiting for me to report to the USS Gherardi, a destroyer. I went from battleships to tin cans.”
January, 1943: Wayne Shelnut boards the USS Gherardi. This intrepid survivor of Pearl Harbor now faced new challenges, new dangers, in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Details, dates, and events sometimes get foggy when you are 100 years young, so I’ve taken the liberty to fine-tune a portion of Wayne’s narrative from Naval historic records concerning the service of the USS Gherardi, the destroyer that Wayne called home for the rest of the war.
Wayne’s comments: “We performed escort voyages to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Port Arthur, and Galveston, TX before setting sail for New York on Feb. 7, 1943. We left New York on February 15 for our first of ten transatlantic convoys. By June 8 we were en route to the Mediterranean as part of the invasion of Sicily.”
The Gherardi protected troop transports, was credited with shooting down one enemy plane, and suffered 11 near misses. In early August, another destroyer joined Gherardi to engage 3 German vessels. At the range of 4,000 yards, the American destroyers sank two enemy vessels, the bigger of which virtually disappeared. The German ship was loaded down with land mines.
After a series of fast convoy escort voyages, the Gherardi participated in the Normandy Invasion on Utah Beach. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Gherardi provided cover fire for our advancing troops. Wayne recalled, “We ran out of ammunition.” He is correct. The USS Gherardi fired all of her munitions, returned to England, replenished her ammo then set sail for another whack at the Germans. On June 25 she participated in the assault on Cherbourg, France then protected aircraft carriers during the invasion of Southern France.
Wayne recalled, “After all that we returned to New York on September 16 to be converted into a high speed minesweeper. Then we left for the Pacific.” By March, 1945 the Gherardi was off the coast of Okinawa sweeping for mines prior to the American invasion on April 1. For three months she fought off Japanese suicide planes, shelled enemy positions by day, and provided our troops with illumination at night.”
Wayne also remembered sweeping for mines in the China Sea. “We provided cover fire for smaller mine sweepers for about a month then sailed into Tokyo Bay to clear the area for the Japanese surrender. By that time I was en route back to the states as a Warrant Officer when the war ended.”
And Wayne Shelnut certainly did his part to win that war. After further assignments including New Orleans where he contracted malaria in the swamps, Wayne retired in 1954 after a 20 year career in the US Navy. He ran a family business in St Louis for several years until moving with his wife to Redondo Beach. “We hawked a little real estate in Redondo then moved to Georgia several years back to be with family,” he said.
His final thoughts: “Well, at 100 years old it’s hard to come up with one thought much less several.” With a wily smile Wayne concluded, “I’m just glad to still be here.”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.