A Memorial Day memory of an Illinois teenager in the chaos of Pearl Harbor
By Dr. Mark DePue, Director of Oral History Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

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[May 23, 2015]  Charles Sehe grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Depression-era Geneva, Illinois. He learned early on to make do with what he had; survival depended on ingenuity and hustle. Money was always tight in the Sehe household, but Charles’ mother was determined that at least one of her six children would complete high school, and she fastened that dream on him.

Charles achieved his mother’s dream, graduating from Geneva High in 1940 before enlisting in the Navy. After basic training, his class was divided into two equal groups of 55 each; the first group was assigned to the USS Arizona. Sehe, number 56, and the rest of his class were sent to Bremerton, Washington, where the USS Nevada was undergoing repairs while in drydock.

Sehe’s initial battle station was one of the ship’s 5-inch guns, but after the slight-framed kid from Geneva dropped a couple of 5-inch rounds during a drill, he was reassigned. As fate would have it, his new station was high up on the Nevada’s mast, manning one of the ship’s searchlights.

A few months later, on a lazy Sunday morning in December, 1941, both the Arizona and Nevada were moored along battleship row in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as were several other battleships and most of the Pacific fleet. Sehe’s plan for the weekend had been to take liberty on Saturday and see the town with a buddy assigned to the USS Arizona, then spend the night on that battleship. But once again fate intervened. Sehe was caught drying out his laundry in front of an exhaust fan, and drew three days kitchen duty for the minor infraction.

So it was that he was pulling kitchen duty on the USS Nevada on the morning of December 7th. “Seven o’clock, I got breakfast. Seven-thirty, I went to the head,” recounted Sehe during a recent oral history interview. “After the head, [I] washed up, getting ready for meals, you know? … Then the four or five of us in the head were sitting around, and all of a sudden, it jarred [us], boom! And I said, ‘Oh, they’re practicing fire. I ran to my battle station and oh my God, it was just unbelievable.”

What Sehe had felt was a Japanese torpedo slamming into the side of the Nevada. What he saw from his battle station was a harbor in chaos, with wave after wave of Japanese aircraft coming at them from all directions.

Here is how Sehe described what he saw that day from the ship’s mast in a letter to family members written 50 years later:

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“The Nevada, with some of its boilers already lit on standby, got up enough steam pressure to get underway. As the ship slowly eased its way into the channel, passing the Arizona, a tremendous fiery explosion ripped the Arizona apart, showering the open deck crews of the Nevada with hot, searing, metallic debris, burning many of them to death.”

“I watched a second wave of high-level dive bombers now concentrating their efforts on the Nevada as we slowly proceeded up the channel, and heard cheers coming from crews of other ships, encouraging us onward,” his letter continued. “Although there were many near misses, as indicated by numerous waterspouts, numerous bombs made their mark and severely damaged the forecastle bridge and the boat deck area. The Nevada was given orders to beach itself so as to avoid blocking the channel to prevent other ships from entering or leaving.”

Sehe stayed with the Nevada for the rest of the war. After it was rebuilt and up-gunned, the venerable old battleship and the young man from Geneva saw plenty more action, including at the Aleutians, Utah Beach, the invasion of southern France, plus Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Charles Sehe, now 92 and living in Minnesota, still finds it difficult to share his memories of the Pearl Harbor attack. Writing about his experiences has been cathartic, but never easy. One thing he does know, something that is universal in human affairs: It’s the politicians and statesmen who create the dilemmas that lead to wars, but it’s always the young men who have to fight them.

Mark DePue is the Director of Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. You can listen to Sehe’s entire story, and those of many other veterans, at www.oralhistory.illinois.gov.

[Submitted by Chris Wills, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum]

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