Remembering Pearl Harbor: Interview with a Navy Survivor

The following interview is an excerpt from the oral history of Captain Douglas G. Phillips, USN (Retired), recorded in December 2010. Captain Phillips graduated from the New York State Merchant Marine Academy in 1937, and later obtained a commission with the U.S. Navy. His first Navy assignment was aboard USS Castor, and he later reported to the light minelayer (and former destroyer) USS Ramsay in Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack. The morning of December 7, Ramsay was at anchor and on the attack azimuth for Japanese planes aiming at the battleship USS Utah.

Captain Phillips retired from the Navy in 1965, and passed away in June 2011. The interview was conducted by Rear Admiral Oakley E. Osborn, USN (Retired). Those interested in the full transcript of the interview, which includes detailed information on his life in and out of the Navy, should contact the Naval Historical Foundation.

OAKLEY E. OSBORN: Doug, we are in Pearl Harbor. You’re in USS Ramsay and you reported on the 6th of December, 1941. Let’s go into the next day and tell me what you were doing that morning if you remember.

Douglas Phillips

An undated photo of Lieutenant Douglas Philips, USN. Courtesy of Rear Admiral Oakley E. Osborn, USN (Retired).

CAPT PHILLIPS:  I remember very well what I was doing. It was my first day aboard. It was a beautiful sunny day. I was up and had breakfast – first one in the Wardroom. Then I was up on deck admiring the scenery and was pretty happy. Then in about three minutes I saw planes coming over and finally it dawned on me that those were Japanese planes, and they came very, very close to the Ramsay. They were lined up to torpedo the Utah. The Utah berth was one of their designated targets. A spy had sent a map to Tokyo showing the location of the ships in Pearl Harbor, so they had an exact spot for the carriers and battleships and other ships they decided to take out. In a matter of minutes after the attack started our running boat was coming back; one of our whaleboats was coming back with some cargo. They later testified that they had been under fire by the planes that were going toward the Utah. Anyway, that boat got aboard. We had the Ready Duty starting at 0800 which meant we had the steam up. I was up on deck. I didn’t go in the engine room because it was a different plant altogether and I figured I’d be in the way and I thought I could do something on deck. I knew a little bit about what was going on. We had some 4-inch rapid fire guns that were installed on the galley deckhouse.

In the meantime the planes were successful in getting several torpedoes into the Utah and we watched there dumbfounded just a short distance away to see the Utah battleship roll over in a matter of minutes after the first attack. The Utah was an old battleship being used as a target vessel. They had planks or beams; 8-by-8s or 7-by-7s, on deck and they would bomb it. The Navy bombers would practice on it. They could bomb it with inert bombs and that’s what it was used for primarily but it was configured as a battleship. The Japanese thought – we were told – that that was a carrier berth so that’s why they went after the old Utah. We watched in amazement as she rolled over right in front of us with men falling off, because as the ship rolled it wasn’t buttoned up at all. They didn’t have time to close watertight doors. As it rolled the crew couldn’t stand up after a little while. They were coming off the ship and these timbers that had not been attached to the deck started rolling off when the men were coming off. I understand why they had some casualties. That was the introduction. In the meantime, a midget submarine had gotten in. When they opened the harbor entrance gate for the early departure of a ship, one of the midget submarines sneaked in. The midget submarines; there were several of them that were brought to the harbor entrance waters just previous without the U.S. knowing it. I think there were two men per submarine. The one that got inside Pearl Harbor came up near our anchorage and the Curtis threw a smoke bomb to mark where they last saw the periscope. By that time I went up on the galley deckhouse where there was a 4-inch gun on either side. I had earlier been a loader as an enlisted man so I knew a little bit about it. The Captain called back from the bridge and said, “Is that gun loaded”, because we had started to train up. He said, “Is that gun loaded?” I thought he said, “Load it.” I was in new whites. I grabbed a shell out of the case – all our ammunition was at the ready – and loaded it and got an enlisted man there and said, “Come on, get aboard here”. He sat in the other side and we trained around and depressed it to where we would fire at this target if we had to. Low and behold, right as we lined up our sights the Navy hospital was in the background so we knew enough not to try that shot. By that time we couldn’t see anything. The smoke pot had left a mark but we couldn’t be sure what we were shooting at. But the Captain just said, “Is that gun loaded”? All I heard was, “Load”, and I did it.

Later, we got orders to get underway and we went out on a couple of different missions. One was to steam back and forth with another ship toward the entrance where we would set up enough underway noise to keep the Japanese from laying torpedoes in the entranceway where you have to slow down and it would be an easy target. We had that duty for several hours and then they got someone else to do that. For the next several days, until the following Wednesday; we went out on what we called “Witch Hunts”. We steamed Darken Ship and had ammunition at the ready. We were under condition watches – every gun wasn’t manned at that time – and we went out on these “Witch Hunts” to the other islands, among other places.  Then on the following Wednesday we came back in and we were horrified at the destruction. During the attack we had been on the opposite side of Ford Island from the battleships so we didn’t see the damage going out. We were intent on going out because one Japanese plane flew right over us. If he had found us in the channel or sunk us there we would have fouled up the channel. Anyway, we got out okay. We did the sound business for a while and then went on these “Witch Hunts”. During those patrols we dropped a number of depth charges. We had a crude sound detection system which would show deflection on a meter if there was any kind of an on anomaly. When we got a good contact we assumed it was a submarine and let go with the depth charges. The following Wednesday when we came back in we saw the amount of damage. Everybody was very gun shy. Not many of us went ashore.

OEO: Do you remember about how long the attack was going on?

CAPT PHILLIPS: Yes, it went on for a little over an hour and then they came with the second wave. So it was all over by 10 o’clock; they were all on their way back to their carrier groups to the North.

OEO: What do you remember about that two hour period? What was happening on your ship?

CAPT PHILLIPS: We first put the other boiler on the line so that we had two boilers. And we stood by weapons. We had machine guns in the foredeck; in the main deck space where you go off and on the ship. We had two machine guns there and they fired at the torpedo bombers that took out the Utah. Mostly we wanted to get moving, “What are we waiting for? We’re ready to go.” Finally, about the time it ended – it was still going on briefly as we got underway – we got a glimpse of the other side of Ford Island at that time. The two hours goes in a hurry when you’re running around doing things and so on. Anyway, we did that high speed sweep thing, running up and down either side of the ship channel just making noise to interfere with submarine listening devices.

OEO: What was your impression of your skipper’s performance during these two hours?

CAPT PHILLIPS: Very good. Lieutenant Commander Gelzer Sims. He and the Exec conferred about what to do. He was a real leader, a gentleman of the old school.  He later commanded the USS Maury at Midway and was a Navy Cross winner.

OEO: Were there any outstanding things with the rest of the crew that come to mind?

CAPT PHILLIPS: We were still at battle stations all that time because it kind of diminished but then it picked up again after the first hour. We were on battle stations, which was ready to man any and all guns we had which weren’t very many. After we’d fired extensively on the planes going for the Utah it was pretty quiet. Most of the planes we saw were too high for us to handle and neither of the bigger guns were for anti-aircraft. They were surface guns. Under a situation like that the time goes quickly. We were just standing by saying, “Why don’t they give us orders? Why don’t they give us orders?” We were ready to go. By that time there was no question about what was going on in the Pearl Harbor area.  As it quieted down the Exec came down the deck and I saluted and said, “Sir, I’m a Reserve officer. I volunteered for active duty a little over a year ago. I’m ready to go home now”. I was being a wise guy of course. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “No, we’d like to have you stick around for a little bit.”

The Captain told a story after we settled down and went back in port. He said he met an old admiral friend and the admiral said to him, “Well Captain, how many Jap subs have you sunk out there”, and he said, “Admiral, we made some attacks. Some were pretty good, others we couldn’t tell. I can’t honestly say that we sunk any.” The admiral said, “Let me shake your hand. You are the first honest destroyer skipper I’ve met since this damn war has started.” That is what a lot of ships did. It was easy to do. You make an attack and think its good but a lot of them weren’t. So we operated that way. We went over to one of the other islands and patrolled in there mostly looking for Jap submarines because at that time we didn’t know how many were loose in there. We operated in and around Pearl Harbor for several weeks.

After the first of the year, we got orders to Pago Pago, Samoa. We were with another ship plus the hospital ship, so we were in a convoy of three ships. We got a good contact en route but it went away and we never had a chance to drop depth charges. At Pago Pago they sent a working party ashore up into the jungle where there were a whole bunch of mines stored; World War I vintage mines. We had to get a truck and haul them down and set them up because we were going to lay mines. They had been stored away for just such an emergency I guess. We mined American Samoa and then we had enough to drop some mines over on British Samoa. Finally, we went further west and spent a lot of time in Suva. In Fiji there is a nice port but Suva has a wonderful natural anchorage just a few miles from Suva Proper. That was going to be the fleet anchorage, and we were going to mine that. We did drop some mines in the channels near Suva but they cancelled the mining operation for the area that was going to be the future anchorage because the war was moving forward. We moved on to Efate in the New Hebrides Islands, and laid a few mines there and then that was all of them. Later in the year, in the summer, we came back to Pearl and not long after, got orders to the Aleutians.

OEO: Stepping back, when you went back into Pearl after a few days of maneuvers outside the channel you then went over and anchored on the side of Ford Island where the battleships were. What could you see from that position?

CAPT PHILLIPS: Not too much because the island was in between us but we knew some of the ships were still burning. There was some smoke coming up. We didn’t see the whole thing. We saw a good view of it as we came in the harbor and hung a left to go to Middle Lock. We saw enough to know that the battleships had rolled over. Our flagship; the Ogallala, had sunk and it was alongside another ship. The torpedo wound up sinking the Ogallala which was the Minecraft Battle Force flagship. She was on her side. Coming back in the devastation was all there for everybody to see.

OEO: Any more on Pearl Harbor on December 7th?

CAPT PHILLIPS: The real aftermath story of Pearl Harbor was the salvage work. They did one heck of a job getting those ships together and pumped out. They had a lot of good divers all ready to go and they had the equipment. That is one of the best stories of World War II, the rapidity of getting things back together. The Japanese really screwed up. There are two tank farms on the edge of Pearl. They didn’t bother them. And there was an ammunition depot. If you come in the harbor you hang a left and that’s West Lock. You go there and unload your ammo if you’re going in for ship’s overhaul. We were lucky being at a mooring but the other four ships in our division were in for an overhaul and they lost men because the Navy Yard and all that area was bombed. We were the lucky ones. We saw those planes come down to sink the Utah. From then on they were high and we were using machine guns. Someone gave me a BAR (Browning automatic rifle) but I didn’t know how to work it. The problem with our guns; they weren’t for airplanes, they were for surface shooting. Shooting at an airplane flying by with a machine gun is kind of difficult. Anyway, we avoided any casualties where we were. They were busy at other places. The Japs should have been after the tank farms and the ammunition depot.

On one of the Pearl Harbor anniversary trips I was on a bus with Pearl Harbor survivors and authors of various books and historians as well as several Japanese aviators that flew on December 7th. One of the Japanese had his wife and daughter and her daughter’s husband. I had earlier purchased a large Japanese flag and had pictures of the flag with me. I went to the daughter of this pilot, because he didn’t speak any English, and told her my story and showed her the pictures and they told me what the flag was. It has a lot of names on it for one thing and it’s also got some brown spots. It is silk and in good shape. They said when a guy was going off to war they would have a party for him and they would all sign the Japanese flag. They would sign all their names and wish him well and then he would wear it on his person.

OEO: Are there any other recollections about December 7, 1941 and Pearl Harbor?

CAPT PHILLIPS: Oh, there were a lot of stories going around. One comes to mind. The Officer of the Deck, when the attack started, sounded General Quarters and the Captain came up on deck and said, “Who sounded General Quarters?” The OOD said, “I did Sir.” And Captain said, “I’m the only one that gives the order to General Quarters”. And the kid said, “Yes Sir. But those are Japanese planes. And Sir, I have to go to my battle station.”  The Captain didn’t know there was an attack. That is the kind of thing that went on because naturally there was a lot of confusion.

USS Ramsay NH 101654

USS RAMSAY (DD 124, prior to being reclassified as DM 16) underway in the 1930’s during war games. NHHC image NH 101654.

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One Response to Remembering Pearl Harbor: Interview with a Navy Survivor

  1. Linda Davis says:

    I’m looking for info on my Uncle Vaughan Jeffers. I remember hearing him talk about being on the USS Ramsey in Pearl Harbor on Dec 7,1941. I am his half brother (Philip H. Eder)’s daughter, and I only met him 2 or 3 times, (at both his parent’s funerals), but would love to find him, if he is still alive. If not, I’d like to know and perhaps find his next of kin (his only grandson). thank you

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