WENATCHEE — In late January 1942, Machinist Mate Second Class Carl Dawson was hard at work in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, patching and preparing the USS Nevada for a 2,600-mile tow ride across the Pacific. But his mind was rerunning the events of several weeks before.
The violent images of Japanese aircraft swooping down on the ship, the deafening explosions that belched fire and smoke and scattered men like ragdolls around him, the weight of the dead sailors he dragged across the deck: it all ran through his head and made him shudder with sudden grief, fear and confusion as if the shocking episodes of Dec. 7 had never ended.
That was 70 years ago. Now, at age 93, the images still persist. He can talk about them now. He’s had to, over and over for the past 50 years or so. But he couldn’t at first. The images and memories weren’t fit to share. He didn’t want them for himself.
Born Nov. 11, 1917 — one year before World War I’s end and the origin of Armistice Day, now known as Veterans Day — Dawson may have been destined to participate and survive the war. A brother was not so lucky, his body was never found along with the submarine he served during World War II’s Pacific battles.
Dawson is a resident of Blossom Valley Assisted Living in Wenatchee. After what he calls a long and happy life — 20 years of it with the U.S. Navy — his kidneys are giving out. He’s elected not to undergo daily dialysis treatments but let his kidneys do whatever they can to keep him going as long they’re able, said his daughter, Lynn Hagen of Wenatchee. He gets around in a wheelchair and is connected to an oxygen tank.
But he looks 20 years younger than he is. His mind is clear, his memory good, his speech lucid. His life is at peace, but his memories are still of war. World War II memorabilia including a photo of the USS Nevada hang on a wall in his room.
“I’ve always thought I’ve lived a charmed life. Here I am at 93. I just feel that I’m one of the most fortunate people in the world,” he said.
But his life hardly seemed charmed 70 years ago. True, he did survive the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941. But he seriously thought he would die that day.
Dawson recalls lying in his bunk shortly before 8 a.m. Dec. 7. It was a Sunday and many of the men assigned to the USS Nevada had not returned after spending the previous night ashore. He was listening to a new phonograph record. Bing Crosby was singing “Lullaby of Broadway.”
“I heard a rat-a-tat-tat. It was a machine gun,” Dawson said. He ran to look out a porthole and a could see an airplane diving toward the ship. He heard more machine-gun fire and explosions. He could hear the ship’s bugler signaling the call to battle stations. The bugler was so excited and confused that he started to play the mess call, Dawson said, but everyone knew this was no time to eat.
Dawson ran to a lower level of the ship where he was assigned to the generator room. While at his station, he remembered the room filling with smoke. He later found out a bomb had hit the ship’s exhaust stack and caused smoke to pour through the ventilation system to sealed rooms below.
Dawson tried to retreat to another level in the pump room but the smoke was so thick he couldn’t find the latches to open the hatch. It turned out to be a good thing. Had he opened the hatch, he found out later, the room would have flooded with water from the ship’s torpedoed bow.
Instead he used a wrench to bang on the ceiling. He couldn’t breathe because of all the smoke.
“Someone heard the sound and finally opened another hatch so we could get out,” he said. When he reached topside, he was confronted with hell. The ship’s antiaircraft guns were firing and the Marines were doing what they could with heavy artillery from the shore to down incoming Japanese bombers and fighter planes, but there were too many of them.
The planes dropped bombs on the ships, ripped them with machine gun fire and dropped torpedoes that sped into the ships from beneath the water. The USS Arizona, the first battleship hit and berthed next to the Nevada, broke in half and sank. Dawson remembers dragging the bodies of killed and wounded soldiers onto his own ship out of the line of fire.
“I did what I could. I lost a lot of buddies,” he said. Sailors were told to return to their stations and prepare the ship to move out of the harbor. The Nevada was hit with several more bombs as it steamed out. It was beached to avoid blocking the harbor exit and came to rest in a sugar field near the mouth of the harbor, he said.
The attack lasted less than two hours. More than 400 Japanese planes from six aircraft carriers 90 miles off the Hawaiian Islands had participated in the attack. Casualties included 2,335 U.S. servicemen and 68 civilians, according to military accounts. Another 1,178 people were wounded.
Twenty-two U.S. ships were heavily damaged. Eight battles ships were heavily damaged, four sunk. The USS Arizona is still submerged in Pearl Harbor, an underwater coffin for more than 1,100 servicemen. More than 180 U.S. aircraft were destroyed. President Franklin Roosevelt declared war on Japan the next day.
The Nevada was extensively damaged and left with two gaping torpedo holes in its bow. The holes were patched and Dawson was with the ship when it was towed under partial power across the Pacific in April to the Bremerton shipyards near Seattle.
The ship was fully repaired and put back into service by October. It later supported World War II invasions at Normandy, Iwo Jima and was stationed near Okinawa at the war’s end in 1945.
Dawson was assigned to another ship after the Nevada reached Bremerton. He didn’t see further action during the war. He married and lived with his new family in Yokahama for nearly two years during the 1950s occupation of Japan after the war.
His daughter Lynn said her father never talked about the war while she, her sister and stepbrother were growing up. Later, he started going to Pearl Harbor and USS Nevada reunions in the 1960s that helped him open up, she said. He’s continued to go to Navy reunions, including one in Carson City, Nev., last October.
Dawson worked in Seattle as a warehouse engineer and Kent as an animal control officer in later years. He moved to Wenatchee to be closer to his daughter after his wife died three years ago.
“I’m a very lucky man,” he said. “I just have to thank God.”
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151