Herb Rommel is a 90 year old (2005) neighbor and
friend. Simply - He was an Ensign rank officer (for those used to UK ranks - it
is pretty low down the scale - just above midshipman) aboard the battleship USS
Oklahoma on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. The history of the USS Oklahoma
credits him with being the man who got on the Tannoy
system and called the ship to battle stations on his own authority with the
words "Air raid - this is no drill - this is the real @#%$!"
Herb tells it a little differently saying that the books cannot publish what he really said - but that - yes - he called the ship to battle stations - but his language was considerably more colorful.
As they were being bombed and torpedoed he ordered his men below decks - into the turret and behind the thicker armor protection afforded by it. Later as the ship started to roll over he ordered the turret abandoned but not everyone got the word and the Oklahoma rolled over and he was washed off her decks into the burning oil on the water. Most of his men were trapped in the turret though miraculously many were freed from the hull over the following two days as the rescue squads cut into the hull.
Herb spent the day in a launch running in and out of the burning oil pulling people out the water. He still has his oil soaked epaulettes from the day - his only surviving memento.
Later in the war Herb commanded a destroyer in the US Pacific fleet and by 1945 was in command of the USS Wilkes off the coast of Japan - on radar picket - warning the US fleet of impending Japanese air raids. As he put it - the ship was known as "The Lucky Wilkes". During her entire WWII commission no one was injured aboard her and she was never damaged by enemy action.
Radar picket was deadly work. The ship was a prime target so that it could not radio on information about the impending air raid (for modern readers HMS Sheffield was doing the same job during the Falklands war). Herb said they were stationed off the coast with another destroyer as back up and a rescue ship. "They replaced the other destroyer 5 times before we were relieved" is how he puts it. 5 other destroyers sunk and they were not scratched.
Herb went on to have a distinguised career in the US navy, in command, commanding depot repair ships and Naval Station Newport before retiring to live in Newport, Rhode Island (which is where I met him).
He maintains contact with his surviving shipmates and has a hobby collecting and selling first day covers featuring Naval Warships.
We were yarning one day about places we had been and seen and situations one would rather not have been in. He commented that he was never truly frightened when in action - it was the luck of the draw - but he was terrified during a summer typhoon in the Pacific in 1943 (not the more famous and documented one of December 1942 when destroyers were rolled over by the weather).
"Two days of keeping her head up using engines because we were moving too slowly for the rudders to work. Terrible visibility and at any moment we might broach or hit another ship doing the same as us. That was truly terrifying."