By Jenna Madsen, Wisconsin Veterans Museum Assistant Curator
Herbert “Herb” Buehl from Monroe, Wisconsin was in the Navy aboard the USS Arizona when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Herb served as an electrician in power distribution on the Arizona. His post was at the bottom of the center of the ship where there were no port-holes and only artificial lighting. Herb had December 7th off, so he and a friend were preparing for Sunday church in their quarters on the ship. Neither Herb nor his friend made it to church that morning; the Japanese began the attack as they were getting ready. “A Chief came running down through the compartments and he said, ‘close all the battle ports and man your battle stations—the Japanese are attacking.’”
Herb was in disbelief, but did as he was told and headed to the number three gun. Herb tried getting in contact with the engine room, but nobody was answering when the Japanese torpedoed the ship, knocking the lights out. Then the Japanese dropped the bomb that went through the deck next to the number two gun. It went all the way through to the ammunition compartment at the bottom of the ship, blowing it up in a terrible explosion. Herb was blown from where he was standing on the ladder. “I mean I never even took a step, one second I was standing on the top, the next second I was standing on the bottom.” Herb recalls:
“Now, when this explosion took place it consumed all of the oxygen in the air, so that meant now we weren’t breathing. And when there isn’t any oxygen in the air you don’t breathe, you can’t even make yourself breathe”
Herb had to crawl on his hands and knees to get the “dog” (the part holding the hatch shut) on the door open using only the strength he had left in order to get fresh air. Soon after Herb and the other men realized there was water flowing into their compartment, and as soon as they got topside they saw that the whole ship was on fire. Orders were given to abandon ship, and without thinking about how much oil had gone into the water, Herb jumped into the water. He was unable to find the raft because it was so black. He remembered the oil vividly. “When your body is covered in oil, your skin can’t breathe and you get tired.” Herb swam to what was called the Key where the Arizona was tied off, and fortunately for him there were two men who assisted him out of the oily water. Herb recounted to our oral historian later:
“I never saw ‘em, all I saw was destruction. I never saw any planes, I never saw anybody do any of the shooting or anything else.”
Following the attack Herb was brought to the officer living quarters on the island to get new clothes, and then was sent to the hangars to make machine gun belts for the planes coming in. That night when Herb went to eat, still unclean from the attack, he finally began to feel run down and was starting to feel the full effects of the day. The men now had nothing, and sleeping was nearly impossible. The next night Herb, feeling sick and unable to eat, went to the sick bay. He tried to get all of the oil off while there and he remembered it took him three tries. He also recalls he had to have a friend help him because he was so exhausted from lack of breath. When Herb recovered, he was reassigned to an ammunition ship for a year and a half. Following the war, Herb only kept in touch with a few people from his service. It is telling as there were only three men in his division out of forty who made it.