HONOLULU — When Japanese bombs began falling on Pearl Harbor, U.S. Navy Seaman 1st Class David Russell first sought refuge below deck on the USS Oklahoma.
But a split-second decision on that December morning 80 years ago changed his mind, and likely saved his life.
“They started closing that hatch. And I decided to get out of there,” Russell, now 101, said in a recent interview.
Within 12 minutes his battleship would capsize under a barrage of torpedoes. Altogether 429 sailors and Marines from the Oklahoma would perish — the greatest death toll from any ship that day other than the USS Arizona, which lost 1,177.
Russell and about 30 other Pearl Harbor survivors, along with World War II veterans, are gathering in Hawaii this week to remember those killed in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.
Those attending will observe a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the minute the bombing began. The ceremony marks the 80th anniversary of the attack that launched the U.S. into World War II.
Russell is traveling to Hawaii with the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former NFL Linebacker Donnie Edwards that helps World War II veterans revisit their old battlefields.
He recalls heading topside when the attack started because he was trained to load anti-aircraft guns and figured he could help if any other loader got hurt.
But Japanese torpedo planes dropped a series of underwater missiles that pummeled the Oklahoma before he could get there. Within 12 minutes, the hulking battleship capsized.
“Those darn torpedoes, they just kept hitting us and kept hitting us. I thought they’d never stop,” Russell said. “That ship was dancing around.”
Russell clambered over and around toppled lockers while the battleship slowly rolled over.
“You had to walk sort of sideways,” he said.
Once he got to the main deck, he crawled over the ship's side and eyed the USS Maryland moored next door. He didn't want to swim because leaked oil was burning in the water below. Jumping, he caught a rope hanging from the Maryland and escaped to that battleship without injury.
Russell's brother-in-law, Fireman 1st Class Walter “Boone” Rogers, was among those who died in the bombing, but his remains were not identified until 2017.
Before then, most of those who died were buried in anonymous Honolulu graves marked as “unknowns” because their remains were too degraded to be identified by the time they were removed from the ship between 1942 and 1944.
In 2015, The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency exhumed 388 sets of these remains in hopes of identifying them with the help of DNA technology and dental records. They succeeded with 361, Russell's brother-in-law being one of them.
David Russell remained in the Navy until retiring in 1960. He worked at Air Force bases for the next two decades and retired for good in 1980.
His wife, Violet, passed away 22 years ago, and he now lives alone in Albany, Oregon. He drives himself to the grocery store and the local American Legion post in a black Ford Explorer while listening to polka music at top volume. When he's not hanging out with other veterans at the legion, he reads military history and watches TV. He keeps a stack of 500-piece puzzles to keep his mind sharp.