About 7:45 a.m., through the crackle and buzz of interference, gunnery and anti-aircraft officer Benny Mott was jolted by pilots’ voices rising with alarm over the radio transmitter aboard the USS Enterprise. They were shouting to one another.
“Hey, did you see that army plane shooting at me?”
“That’s no army plane! That’s a Japanese plane! Look at the red circles on his wings!”
“That bastard! I’m going to shoot back!” The charged back-and-forth continued as Squadron Six and the equally surprised Japanese pilots tangled in view of Pearl Harbor.
Relieved of his watch, Benny raced past the duty bugler and the officer of the deck, then past the quartermaster and the helmsman. He was heading for the secret radar console between the flag bridge and the ship’s bridge. Benny found Jack Baumeister, Enterprise radar officer, hidden behind a long black curtain. Heart at a gallop, Benny told Jack what he’d heard on the pilot’s frequency. “Can we get anything on radar?”
Perspiring, Jack leaned forward in his chair and peered at a cluster of echoing blips of unknown origin making their way across the screen of the ship’s new radar machine. “It’s strange,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of bogies, but I shouldn’t be getting any. We’re a hundred and forty-four miles away, so they have to be flying really high for me to even get them on radar—I mean at least twenty thousand feet.”
“Have you reported this?” Benny asked, incredulous. Jack replied that he had, but his tone betrayed a lack of confidence in the new radar technology. By then, however, numerous planes had sent messages back to Enterprise confirming the worst. Benny and Jack stood together staring at the screen, the top half seeming to crawl with ants. Within seconds, the ship’s sirens screamed. The radioman had received an official coded message: “Enemy air raid on Pearl Harbor X This no drill.”
The quartermaster pulled the general quarters alarm, triggering its seventeen spine-chilling buzzes. The message blared repeatedly over the ship’s loudspeakers as men scrambled to their battle stations. Back in Sky Control, Benny issued rapid but succinct instructions in preparation for a possible attack on Enterprise itself, first to the men on the large five-inch antiaircraft mounts and on down the line to the machine gunners amidships.
As Benny barked orders to his gunners, Halsey issued his own from the flag bridge. After sending up a combat air patrol (CAP) to search for enemy ships, the admiral motioned to the signalmen. In a finger snap, a new set of multicolored flags were yanked from their flag bag and hoisted up the yardarm. The message to the fleet: “Prepare for battle.” With Enterprise’s battle flags now flying from her forepeak, the signal went out to the ships in the convoy to do the same. Wordless, from the ship’s highest perch, Benny watched the opening scenes of Enterprise at war.
OVER THE NEXT TWO hours, the enemy force, commanded by Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, leveled the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Enterprise’s Squadron Six, outnumbered ten to one, fought the swarming Zeros with everything it had. The pilots’ voices through the crackling radio static rang in Benny’s ears for days, especially that of Ensign Manuel Gonzales. “Please don’t shoot! This is Six-Baker-Three, an American plane!” Next came Gonzales’s urgent command to his rear gunner, “We are on fire—bail out!” The transmission went silent after that. They disappeared without a trace.
Brigham Young carried Admiral Halsey’s staff officer, Lieutenant Commander Bromfield Nichols, in the rear of his plane. Nichols was carrying the classified report on Enterprise’s delivery of the fighter planes to Wake Island. Through the wind and static, Benny heard Young say something about antiaircraft puffs over the harbor and army planes over the marines’ aviation hub, Ewa Air Station.
Next, Nichols shouted that bits of their left wing were gone. The next thing Benny heard was a long series of invectives, and then nothing. He later learned that Young barely made his landing—after taking more fire from confused US gunners on the tarmac than the Japanese pilots in the air.
News of the rest of Squadron Six trickled in. Lieutenant Clarence Dickinson and Ensign Bud McCarthy had been lucky. Under attack by six Zeros, they shot down one but were no match for the rest. Both their planes were riddled, but the men bailed out at low altitude and survived to tread water off Battleship Row, witnessing firsthand the entire horrific show. Ensign Edward Deacon landed in the water short of the runway. Holding his wounded gunner, he grabbed his raft from the sinking plane and paddled ashore.
Squadron Six leader Earl Gallagher miraculously avoided the enemy planes by flying back out to sea, low above the water. He felt sure the enemy ships had retired to the northwest. He then landed on Ford Island amid more confused American gunfire. After refueling, Gallagher flew 175 miles in the direction of the retreating planes but found nothing but empty seas. When the worst of it was over, Benny asked around for news of Ensigns Vogt and Miller.
Vogt’s Dauntless dive bomber was last seen by marines at Ewa Station in a dogfight with three Zeros, firing his fixed and free guns with everything he had. Then he got on the tail of one of them and poured tracers into it, but it pulled up so sharply that Vogt collided with it. He was able to bail out but his parachute failed to deploy, and he died after slamming into a tree. Roger Miller managed to take out a Zero also, but he, too, was killed. Benny’s two good friends had been struck down within minutes of each other in the first hour of the war.
STILL A RELATIVELY SAFE distance from Pearl, Enterprise searched for the retreating Japanese fleet for the next twenty-four hours. The Pacific Ocean had become a vast hiding place for an invisible foe, however, and the attackers were nowhere to be found.
The search was abandoned late on Monday afternoon, December 8. At sunset, Enterprise and her convoy nosed up the channel and into Pearl Harbor. It was a silent, ghoulish glide through thousands of feet of smoldering wreckage and floating bodies. Soot-smudged soldiers manning antiaircraft guns lined the docks. “Hey, you better get out, or they’ll get you too!” yelled one shell-shocked sailor. Another cried, “Where the hell were you?”
A dumbstruck Benny surveyed the devastation from the ship’s superstructure. Grim-faced sailors lined the ship’s rails, and thousands of faces fastened on the horror from every gun mount, hatch, and portal. Nevada was overturned and aground, Utah blown to pieces, its remains slouched in harbor mud. The capsized Oklahoma had rolled 150 degrees, her tripod mast jammed deep into the sludge.
Only the bottom of Oklahoma’s hull was visible. As the Enterprise crew gawked helplessly, word traveled that hundreds of Oklahoma’s sailors were trapped alive inside. Men huddled on and around her hull, frantically working pneumatic drills to free them before their oxygen expired.
The spit-and-polish harbor Enterprise had departed nine days earlier was aflame and clogged with charred ship remains and floating death. A pall of black smoke fed by the still-burning Arizona hung heavy and low over the entire anchorage. For Arizona, it was too late for heroics. Four Japanese bombs found their mark on the ship, and 1,700 men perished, among them 23 sets of brothers. By Benny’s count, at least twenty ships had been sunk or damaged. He wondered with dread how many of the dead he knew.
Sally Mott Freeman is the author of “The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home,” which chronicles the author’s own family saga during World War II.
Freeman’s father, Bill Mott, ran President Roosevelt’s map room at the White House while her uncle, Benny Mott, was a gunnery and anti-aircraft officer aboard the USS Enterprise during the Pearl Harbor attack. Bill and Benny’s half-brother, Barton Cross, served in the Navy Supply Corps until he went missing in the Philippines, leading Bill and Benny to attempt a rescue mission.