I really, really love my job. Every day I get to tell interesting stories about people, places, and events in Owensboro. But today was a very, very special day. Three weeks before the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I was honored and humbled to spend an hour listening to stories from one of the few remaining survivors, 96-year-old Earl Emery Davis, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Nevada in December of ’41.
Davis is originally from Tell City, IN, but has lived here in Owensboro with his sister, Edith, for the past 20-plus years. In 1995, Edith moved to Owensboro, and soon after, invited Earl to join her. Now 82, Edith takes care of her big brother. “This is a nice place for us. There’s no steps. It’s handicapped equipped. This is where we spend our time,” Edith said, pointing to the two chairs in the corner of the living room with walkers at the ready.
Earl joined the Navy May 2, 1939, just after high school. “I knew there was a war coming and I didn’t want to be a foot soldier,” Davis says. “That way I had a decent meal every day, a clean bed to sleep in, and a shower every day.”
He trained at Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside Chicago, Illinois, and was stationed at Long Beach, California. Once war maneuvers began, the USS Nevada was based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to cover the Pacific theater.
Life on the USS Nevada
Davis was an electrician, but his battle station was manning an anti-aircraft gun positioned on a platform on a walk bridge about 35 feet above the deck of the ship.
“My job as electrician was to take care of all the electrical appliances in the officers’ quarters. Refrigerators. Coffee makers. Everything to make the officers comfortable. But I had it good, too, because I could eat the officer’s mess rations and drink their coffee. One day a young buck asked me ‘What are you doing drinking the officers coffee?’ And I said ‘Well, do you like the fact that you have a way to cook your meals? I’m the guy that makes that happen. So you should be happy I’m up here.”
Davis recalls the USS Nevada having 14-inch guns, which means the shells were “14 inches across the tip and about a foot long, with a gallon of nitroglycerin in the tip end of it. So when it hits, everything around it goes up.” (He says this while motioning an explosion with both hands.)
For the D-Day invasion at Normandy, for example, the USS Nevada set several miles off the coast and lobbed shells ahead of the Marines storming the beach. “We bombed for about an hour before they invaded, but as we were still lobbing shells, they started hitting the beach. Our spotter plane flew above the enemy and radioed back the coordinates so we knew where to aim to knock out the pillboxes (concrete fortifications). The pilots said they looked like moles in the ground. After the pillboxes, we aimed at the concrete walls the Germans had built. At Normandy, we were close enough to see in the distance because I was up so high. But at Okinawa and Iwo Jima, we were too far out to really see anything.”
By the end of WWII, the USS Nevada had eight battle stars for 80 invasions, including Normandy, Iwo Jima, Attu, and Okinawa. “That was a lot,” Earl said, of the eight battle stars. “More than any battleship should’ve had. But they used you where they needed you. I’m just glad I was on a ship that was out miles away. I knew we were killing people, but I never saw it up close. The boys storming the beaches were the ones with nightmares because they saw it up close.”
Dec 7, 1941
On the morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Earl was laying in his bunk reading a Honolulu Sunday paper. “They came over the PA system screaming ‘Man your battle stations.’ Well, we’d been practicing that for 18 months, so we weren’t in any rush. We were just taking our time. But then they hollered ‘Man your battle stations on the double! They’re bombing Pearl Harbor.’ I had on a pair of tropical shorts and a T-shirt, so I headed up to my battle station on the bridge. By that time, we were hearing the bombs hitting the Ford Island runway. I heard the first bomb go off at five minutes till 8:00. They hit our planes first so they couldn’t take off. They were strafing and bombing all the planes down the middle of the airport runway.”
Davis says the battleships were at a great disadvantage. One direction was Honolulu, so they couldn’t shoot that way. The other direction was Pearl City, so they couldn’t shoot that way, either. “We only had two directions we could shoot, three counting up. So mostly we fired straight up at the planes.”
After about a half hour of fighting, a plane flew directly over the USS Nevada and dropped a bomb that hit right in the center of the main deck. “A big wall of fire come up over the platform above the bridge. I was right in the middle of the fireball. I was screaming, which was probably a good thing because I didn’t breathe in the flames or that would have been the end of me. When I came to, I couldn’t see at first, but the explosion had burnt me. I was burned over 80% of my body.”
It was a horrific injury, but not enough to stop Davis from jumping over the side, swimming to shore, and walking to the Naval hospital. “When I walked in they sprayed me with titanic acid, which turned my body a bluish-black color, but it coated my nerve endings and took away some of the pain. Then they gave me morphine shots about four times a day for the next two or three months.”
According to research for this article, the USS Nevada was hit by six bombs and a torpedo, which cut a 30-foot gash in the port bow of the ship, before the ship was ordered to run aground.
“The Japanese bombers sunk every battle ship we had,” Davis remembers. “Thank God the water in Pearl Harbor wasn’t deep enough for the ships to actually go all the way underwater. I’d say from the main deck to the bottom of our ship was 40 feet, so even when it sunk, the deck was still above water. Therefore, a lot of boys were not trapped, which saved a lot of lives. But we did lose all our clothes, shoes, money, and all the possessions in our lockers.”
As Davis remembers, they fixed the Nevada enough for it to make it back to the States under its own power. “Then they completely rebuilt it, and stuck guns everywhere they could stick a gun. They put 1.5 pom-pom guns, 2-millimeter guns, and 5-inch anti-aircraft guns on there. When it left the shipyard, it was a floating gunship.”
After 14 months recuperating in the hospital, Davis received orders to return to the repaired USS Nevada. “We went through the rest of World War II, and we covered every big battle there was. We had expert gunners, the Logan brothers from Butte, Montana, and they were crack shots. Anytime they needed expert gunners, the USS Nevada was sent to do it.”
After the War
When the war finally ended, Davis did not continue as an electrician because he was afraid of heights and didn’t want to climb poles. Instead, he went to work for Radio Corporation of America (RCA) as a sound engineer.
As the years passed, the USS Nevada held reunions, but they were always on the west coast; a trip Davis never made since he lived near Indianapolis.
He says he thinks about Pearl Harbor sometimes. Not everyday. Mostly when the news starts talking about it as December 7 rolls around again. He no longer attends VFW or Paralyzed Veterans meetings anymore, but on the rare occasions he and Edith leave the house you can bet he’ll be wearing his “Pearl Harbor Survivor” hat. He says he gets a lot of “thank you’s” when he wears his hat.
“It doesn’t bother me to talk about it. I think the guys who didn’t talk about it had more nightmares and problems because they didn’t talk. I’ve always talked about it. Anytime I talk to someone, it generally comes out that I’m a Pearl Harbor survivor. There aren’t many of us left anymore.”
Earl’s burns from Pearl Harbor have healed long ago and are no longer visible. At 96, he’s blind in one eye and hard of hearing in his left ear, but other than that, he’s still going strong. “Slowly but surely,” he laughs. “I feel I’m good for another four years, so that would make me 100.” Davis laughed, then looked me right in the eye, a little more pensive. “You make due with what you got left. You don’t have a choice. The man above tells you what’s going to happen.”
As I shook his hand and thanked him for his service, Earl had one last thought. “There’s nothing about a war that is fun. You’re laying your life on the line, and you don’t worry about yourself. You worry about protecting your ship. Getting the job done is all that counts.”