An unexploded bomb saved the life of Arles Cole.
Cole, then 17, had ventured from his floating home on the U.S.S. West Virginia to the Hawaiian islands to purchase Christmas presents for his family.
Upon returning to the ship, "I had slept on the chart table," said Cole, now 88. "I had a little mat stored underneath it with a little pillow."
This was hours before the date that has since long lived in infamy. Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Cole arose to an enemy attack.
"Somebody yelled, 'The Japanese were attacking us,'" Cole said. In his home at the University Village retirement center, Cole keeps memories of that day and his role in several floating battles. The ribbons on display outside his door testify to his involvement in nine major battle engagements.
It's that one day in Pearl Harbor that once again has Cole's focus. He has published his own autobiography, but, a few years ago, 52 men belonging to the same fraternity of survivors shared their stories in a spiral-bound book printed by Tulsa's Last Man's Club, a group of Pearl Harbor veterans.
The effort has since fallen out of print, but Cole wants to reprint Pearl Harbor Survivors and Their Stories to make more widely available those first-hand stories, many of which now only exist on the printed page. The 183-page book can be found in the archives of the Tulsa City-County Library, but of those who participated in the original project, only about eight men remain living, Cole said.
Linda Wilson, an associate professor at Northeastern State University, organized a six-week symposium on World War II this fall.
In planning the event, 24 men and women agreed to speak to crowds about their wartime experiences. Just in the few months prior to the events, however, two veterans died: James Taylor, who spent nearly a year as a prisoner of war in Germany, and James Gailey, another veteran who survived Pearl Harbor.
"In just a twinkle of an eye, we won't have the opportunity to have first-hand stories," said Wilson. Her field is education, but her father is a World War II veteran, so she chose to organize the event as a labor of love. She's also planning to help Cole distribute the survivors' book to schools.
Cole nearly didn't go on to travel the Pacific and more island and coastal warfare, and then come back to Oklahoma to marry and raise a family.
He had 11 months of training and recalled how the crew engaged in mock battles before the Pearl Harbor attack.
"We undoubtedly knew something was coming, but we didn't know when or where," Cole said.
After the alarm sounded, Cole and other men rushed to their battle stations.
"We all scrambled up and down the ladders," Cole said. With some going up and some going down, Cole recalled how he slid down, making use of some of the agility he had honed working on an Oklahoma ranch. Cole's youth didn't stand out on the ship; he said most on board were still in their teens.
"I rode all the way down to the third deck below the main deck, which was two decks below the waterline," Cole said. "At this very moment, those torpedoes began to hit."
He said he had made it to a long passageway, headed toward the bow of the ship.
"I didn't get there. I was making a turn on that long corner on that hall. I heard an explosion just before the lights went out. I saw two big squirts of water pouring, continuous flow," Cole recalled.
Knocked to his knees, Cole could have been entombed -- the ship ultimately sank.
But in the darkness, there was "a little light coming from the second floor above, down through a hole overhead," Cole said. "I could see it. I went to the hole."
Badly damaged, the shop listed at a severe angle.
Just to move forward, "I literally had to climb equipment on the wall," Cole said.
The hole had been knocked into the ship by a 500 pound bomb dropped from a Japanese warplane, Cole said. The enemy's mission had been to destroy the naval vessels as well as the U.S. air fleet.
Cole happened to be in the right place to see his way to survival, but it very easily could have been precisely the worst spot.
"I could have died if that bomb had exploded ... a miracle saved me," Cole said.
Scrambling to the deck above, Cole then saw others who had felt the force of the fallen bomb. The men lay scattered and fallen.
"The first thing I heard was, 'Get these men out of here,'" Cole said. The men were at their bunking station, and it was obvious that many were injured pretty severely.
Cole said he went to the first person who needed help, a captain's orderly described by Cole as "a big black fellow, a country boy from Waco, Texas" -- according to Cole, the man was Doris Miller, later awarded the prestigious Navy Cross for his own acts of valor. According to online Navy historical documents, "was instrumental in hauling people along through oil and water to the quarterdeck, thereby unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost."
Cole said he recalled clearly the man he helped, and he still wondered at his ability to do so.
"I must have had supernatural strength given to me, because I'm not capable of carrying 235 pounds." Cole said. He added: "Those are things you'll do in time of battle."
In all, more than 2000 Americans died, including more than a thousand on the U.S.S. Arizona. Among the ships that also sank was the U.S.S. Oklahoma, while at least 70 men died on the U.S.S. West Virginia.
Cole has vowed to make the survivors' stories more widely available to Tulsa-area students, and said the Last Man's Club has established an account for funds devoted to printing what he hopes will be several hundred copies of the book. With enough money, Cole said he'd like to be able to print the book in color.
Anyone interested in contributing money to the effort may call Cole at 918-296-1970.
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