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Local vet recalls attack on Pearl Harbor

When World War II ended on Sept. 2, 1945, Petty Officer First Class Bob Bangs was sitting in a coffee shop on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

"The loud speaker announced the war with Japan was over, that the Japanese had surrendered," Bangs recalled. "There I was, drinking coffee, maybe 100 yards or so from where I was when the war began.

"I remember thinking, 'Thank God, no more killing,' " he added.

He was also thinking of that Sunday morning 68 years ago today — Dec. 7, 1941 — when the war began. He was on duty aboard the USS Maryland, anchored alongside the USS Oklahoma in Battleship Row in the harbor.

Bangs, who lives in Phoenix with his wife, Betty, witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor, which drew the United States into the global conflict. It killed 2,117 American sailors and marines, 218 soldiers and 68 civilians. It left 18 ships sunk or disabled, including the Maryland and Oklahoma. The Japanese, who lost only 29 planes, also destroyed about 200 American aircraft.

Partially serving as a foil for the Maryland during the attack, the Oklahoma was hit numerous times, and quickly went belly up.

"Right after the attack, I was standing on the bottom side of the Oklahoma and looking up," said Bangs, a metalsmith sent over to aid sailors trapped in the upsidedown hull of the sister ship. "Here were these bombers going over. I thought, 'My God! What a place to be with bombers overhead.' "

Hailing from Southern California, Bangs was 17 when he joined the Navy in 1938. He became a chief during his eight years in the Navy, then joined the Army to become a commissioned officer, retiring as a major in 1960. During the Korean War in 1951-52, he was awarded a Bronze star for meritorious service.

Aboard the USS Maryland, his job as metalsmith included everything from welding to various repair jobs. He was also one of the ship's divers.

In Navy parlance, he was an "old salt" at the ripe old age of 21 when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

"I was on duty down on the engineering deck that morning," he said. "You watched a bunch of gauges to make sure everything was running OK."

The first alarm he heard was for the "Away, Fire and Rescue Parties" to report immediately top side. Their mission was to answer another ship's distress call.

"I didn't know what was going on, but as I went to my battle station I started hearing the bombs hitting," he said. "And they announced over the loudspeaker that we were being attacked by the Japanese."

Although apprehensive of what they were about to face, Bangs relied on his training to get him through the ordeal.

"In a situation like that, you are scared, confused," he said. "But you have a job to do so you just go and do it. You do your part. I think that was the way with most of the people on the ship."

A buddy of Bang's, Seaman Leslie Short, who was addressing Christmas cards near his anti-aircraft gun that morning, began firing at the attacking aircraft. He was credited with shooting down one of two torpedo bombers that had struck the Oklahoma.

Bangs estimates that within 20 minutes of the attack, he and other metalsmiths and ship fitters were deployed to the Oklahoma.

"Some people could hear people pounding on the inside, but I couldn't from where I was," he said. "I went to different locations to try to burn through the bottom to try to get those guys out.

"We were trying to get people out but we had some real problems," he added. "We couldn't do it with a torch because we were afraid of asphyxiating the people inside — taking their air out."

After about an hour on the Oklahoma, Bangs was sent back to the Maryland.

"We had damage in the bow we had to take care of," he explained. "We had a hole in the bow under the water line."

The "Fighting Mary," originally launched in 1920, had been hit by two 500-pound bombs. The Japanese declared the Maryland was one of the ships they sank.

To paraphrase Mark Twain's comments on premature reports of his death, the sinking of the mighty Maryland was greatly exaggerated.

"We repaired her at Pearl, then sailed back to Bremerton for major repairs," Bangs said, referring to the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Washington.

By February of 1942, the Maryland, known as one of the "Big Five" because she was one of five battleships with 16-inch guns, was back in action.

Over the next two years, her enormous firepower would be used in the amphibious assaults on the Gilbert islands, the Marshalls and Tarawa. She would be struck at least twice by torpedoes but would survive the war.

Bangs remained aboard her until he was transferred back to Ford Island late in 1944, which is where he was when the guns of war fell silent on Sept. 2, 1945.

The Maryland would be sold for scrap a year before he retired from the Army.

"If I had it to do over again, I would have stayed on the Maryland," he said. "She was a good ship with a good crew."

He used to keep in touch with some of his old shipmates but their ranks have dwindled steadily over the years.

"We used to have a group called the 'Maryland Association' that met once a year around the country," he said. "But a couple of years ago it was disbanded. There just aren't many of us around anymore."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Bob Bangs of Phoenix was in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, aboard the USS Maryland, which was hit by two 500-pound bombs. - Mail Tribune / Jim Craven