The Forgotten Story of How One U.S. Battleship Fought Back During Pearl Harbor
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Gunner’s Mate Russell Winsett, 19, awoke at 5 am as he did most mornings. As he went topside he could see that the weather was like almost every December day in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, sunny blue skies with a few white puffy clouds.
This was a day Winsett was looking forward to. He thought to himself, “It’s gonna be a beautiful day to visit the island with my cousin, his wife, and three kids.” Winsett had met his relative William Pope several months earlier when his family wrote and told him that he had a distant cousin also stationed at Pearl Harbor. Winsett had found the ship William was serving on, contacted him, and they met for a short visit. The next day his cousin went on a two-month cruise. Winsett was looking forward to reconnecting with his family member and getting to meet his wife and kids while taking in the sights of Hawaii. It was a long way from home for this Alabama farm boy.
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Winsett graduated from high school in 1939 and began working on the family farm. His oldest brother had already joined the Army. In 1940, Russell started thinking of life off the farm. “It was a good life, but I didn’t like the back breaking work of farming in the heat,” he said of his childhood in the little town of Hamilton in northwest Alabama. “I was simply tired of using a mule’s ass for a compass. So one day, me [sic] and two other buddies decided that we would join the Navy. We drove to the recruiting station over in Florence. During the medical exam they found something in my kidneys they didn’t like, so they took my two buddies immediately, but sent me home with instructions on how to cure myself. Two weeks later I went back, and they passed me that time.”
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Winsett never saw his two buddies after that but found out later that both of them lost their lives during the war. He was soon off to boot camp in Norfolk, Virginia. After boot camp he took a five-day train trip to Bremerton, Washington, to join the crew of the battleship USS Pennsylvania. “Back then you didn’t have all the specialized training they do with sailors today. You learned by getting on ship and having the chief watch over you.”
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The lead ship of her class, Pennsylvania was laid down on October 27, 1913, by the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, in Newport News, Virginia. Launched on March 16, 1915, and commissioned on June 12, 1916, she began her proud tradition in October of that year as the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet. During her time as flagship, the Pennsylvania escorted ships carrying President Woodrow Wilson on tours as well as having Vice President Thomas Marshall and other dignitaries on board. In 1922, the Pennsylvania joined the Pacific Fleet based in San Pedro, California. During the interwar period, her duties primarily involved operations along the West Coast.
Winsett felt lucky to be assigned to such a proud ship. “This ship is a whole lot bigger than my house,” he remembered thinking upon seeing the Pennsylvania. His first week on board was spent getting familiar with the ship and learning his duties. After a week, the Pennsylvania set sail for Hawaii. “The cruise took about a week, and we had some rough seas but I never got seasick, and then we finally sailed into Pearl Harbor. It was like being in paradise.”
The Pennsylvania arrived in January 1941, and Winsett was excited to go ashore and see the sights. Life on the island was beautiful and fun for this young man of humble beginnings. “Really, you couldn’t do much on $21 a month pay,” he said. “Mostly when we got liberty we just went downtown. Some guys liked to go to Hotel Street, which was kinda the main drag. That’s where the working girls hung out.”
For Winsett, however, that was not one of the pleasures of this paradise. When asked, he smiled, shook his head, and with a gleam in his eye said, “No that wasn’t for me, especially since it cost $5, and I was only making $21 per month.”
Winsett’s shipboard duties did not allow for a lot of free time. “There was always something to clean, something to wax, or something to paint on board,” he explained. The Pennsylvania crew was especially proud of one member. Joe Bennett was the fleet heavyweight boxing champ and a friend of Winsett. “Everyone knew Joe to be a good guy, but he was definitely someone you didn’t want to mess with.”
On the fateful morning of December 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack, the Pennsylvania was in Drydock No. 1 at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard with three of her propeller shafts removed. In the same drydock off the bow of the Pennsylvania were two destroyers, the USS Downes and USS Cassin. Pennsylvania’s normal sea berth while in port was B-2, which was occupied that morning by the cruiser USS Helena with the minelayer USS Oglala alongside. Activity aboard the Pennsylvania was even quieter than normal since she was excused, due to being drydocked, from the normal morning antiaircraft drills. A condition watch of antiaircraft personnel was on duty, but the guns where unmanned.