Survivor keeps souvenir of Pearl Harbor attack
MARQUETTE – Upper Peninsula native and fireman third class John Kline didn’t think twice about joining the Navy in July 1941.
“I think (my parents) were glad in a way,” Kline said. “It was one less mouth to feed.”
It was hard times in the Copper Country then, and life in Eagle River was no exception.
With no money for college and little prospects for a job, Kline decided to join the Navy because at 17 years old, it was the only branch of the military that would accept him.
Kline made $21 a month, a decent sum for a young man back then.
During his down time, Kline and the other men aboard the USS Nevada did what most people would expect.
“We slept, played cards,” Kline said.
The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, however, Kline was on watch inside a pump room, deep inside the hulking battleship moored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
And though it wasn’t Kline’s first choice in career paths within the Navy, it’s likely an assignment that kept him safe from enemy fire that fateful December day so many years ago.
“I actually wanted to work mess. They earned $20 more a month,” Kline said, the added bonus coming from a monthly $1 tip received from the 20 men the mess hall sailors were assigned to feed. It was a good practice back then to keep the men in charge of a sailor’s food happy.
Kline was on watch when the attack began, and he and the other men with him thought the officer was joking when he ran through the ship yelling “The Japs are attacking!”
But they soon found themselves running to their own battle stations as Japanese planes flew overhead, raining down bombs and bullets that would eventually claim the lives of more than 2,400 Americans. Fifty two of those men would be aboard the Nevada, the only ship to get under way that day.
As it attempted to make a run for the open sea, the massive ship became an easy target for Japanese fighter pilots and it was ordered to run aground following heavy enemy fire that ripped through the Nevada’s hull, threatening to sink her and completely block the harbor.
Kline spent most of the fire-fight deep within the ship, part of an assembly line formed to run ammunition to the men topside. There, some men used Navy-issued .30 caliber rifles to return fire, using mattresses propped up against the ship’s rails to take cover as planes sliced through the sky above them.
Kline was also assigned to firefighting duty, where he attempted to stamp out the fires that threatened to sink the already-doomed battleship.
After it was all over the men who survived were assigned to clean-up duty.
“It was a mess,” Kline said. “There was oil floating all over.”
Day after laborious day, the men cleaned debris and searched for the bodies of those who couldn’t escape.
“You went back to (work on) your ship, unless it wasn’t there anymore,” Kline said.
At the end of the day, the exhausted men would take their dirty clothes off, leave them in a heap and walk through the showers, a clean uniform and a hot meal waiting on the other side.
They slept on the lanes in a bowling alley.
It was difficult to hang onto much during those days. Men who didn’t want to lose their watches or other valuables stuffed them inside their shoes – the only clothing they were allowed to keep.
Kline managed to hide in his shoe a small, oil-stained black head band with yellow lettering bearing the name of the USS Nevada. Back then, men would wear the bands in support of the ship they were assigned to, though Kline said the practice was banned before he had a chance to get one.
“It caused too many fights in bars,” Kline said.
But following the attack, while cleaning aboard the Nevada, he found a USS Nevada headband that he now keeps rolled up inside an old prescription medicine bottle in a closet in his home in Marquette.
The black of the headband has faded with time and the yellow lettering doesn’t stand out the way it likely did more than 70 years ago, but it is a way to keep alive the tragic events of that December day
“It’s my souvenir,” Kline said.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.