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Our War: Navy submarine crew man can't forget the planes over Pearl Harbor

Portrait of Lester Murray taken after WWII.
Portrait of Lester Murray taken after WWII.

Sixty-six years ago today, Lester Murray saw the United States enter World War II.

He was a crew member on the submarine U.S.S. Narwhal, which some say was the first to sound its air raid siren on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. Bombs shook Murray out of his bed in a base barracks, where he was staying while training.

"We could see the smoke rising and hear the explosions, but there was nothing we could do while the first wave was going on, so we took cover," Murray said. "Someone hollered, 'It's Japanese planes!'"

Murray said he and several other submariners waited for an opportunity to run to their ship.

"When that first wave was over, we got out to the sub as fast as we could so we could get it ready to get underway if we had to," Murray said.

When he finally got aboard the Narwhal, Murray saw torpedo bombers swoop close to the surface of Southeast Loch. They took aim at ships, including the USS Arizona, on battleship row.

"We could see them right off our stern as they came in to make their torpedo runs," said Murray, 88, gesturing out the front window of his Swansea home. "They looked like they were only from here to the street. We shot one of them down and it crashed in the water about 100 yards away."

The Narwhal is also believed to have taken down a second Japanese plane.

"Personnel are reasonably sure that Narwhal scored hits on one other plane which came under our fire and banked and turned at close range," Lt. Cmdr. Charles Wilkins' action report from that infamous day reads. "This plane emitted white smoke and appeared to be wobbly as it disappeared low in a direction over the Navy Yard officer's club."

Only 29 enemy planes were shot down during the entire sneak attack. Murray is still disappointed that the Narwhal -- as well as three other subs docked next to it -- didn't shoot down more.

"They were so close, I don't know how we could have missed them," Murray said. "We were firing tracer rounds and they were right there."

An electrician on the Narwhal, Murray got to work charging the batteries that gave the sub power while it ran underwater and making other preparations to shove off.

The Narwhal had only four machine guns -- two .50 calibers and two .30 calibers. The rest of the crew had no way to fight back, other than to shake their fists and curse at the Japanese pilots who flew so close you could see their faces.

Murray said his crewmates knew the war in Europe was likely to spread to America eventually and were frustrated to be caught off guard.

"Until the Saturday before the attack, there were machine guns on top of all the buildings and no one was allowed to take liberty," Murray said. "But they took all of those down the day before and went ahead and let everybody take liberty. If that wouldn't have happened, maybe we would have been better prepared and things would have been different."

While sailors and soldiers who witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor were eager to get into the fight, Murray continued to study and prepare for his upcoming war patrol. Sub crews did not clear the battle damage or recover the dead, but the vision of sunken ships in the harbor and the billowing smoke was constantly with Murray.

On Feb. 2, 1942, the Narwhal finally went to war. Its first action came 24 days later, when it torpedoed and sank the 6,515-ton Japanese freighter Maju Maru. Less than a week later, the Narwhal sank the 1,244-ton Taki Maru.

Murray remembered seeing ships sink through the periscope, just like in a war movie. But another scene from war movies became all too real when Japanese destroyers attacked his sub with depth charges.

"Sometimes it seemed like they were pretty close," Murray said of the charges -- basically underwater bombs dropped off ships and set to explode at a certain depth.

"Once we were under attack all day. I think they dropped about 120-some of them on us. Another time about 20 of them came in half a minute.

"It's a helpless feeling when those things are exploding all around you, but all you can do is wait," Murray said.

Sailors couldn't do anything but sit silently under the attack. They had to fight to keep from screaming out. The sub's light bulbs swayed, hung on a wire so they wouldn't shatter from the concussions.

Even under the best circumstances, he said submarines were cramped and uncomfortable places.

Patrols lasted about two months, during which most of the submarine's crew would not see daylight. The smell of the stuffy subs reminded Murray of his childhood on the farm.

But he never got used to the oxygen level getting so low that a match couldn't strike.

"We would run on the surface at night and stay submerged all day," Murray said. "Toward the end of the day, the air would get so bad in there that you couldn't light a cigarette."

On its second patrol, the Narwhal went to Midway Island. It lay in wait for Japanese aircraft carriers and was a last line of defense if the enemy broke through and tried to land troops.

Japanese ships never came near them.

Murray joined his second sub, the Crevalle, in Australia in 1943. The ship got busy menacing the Japanese Navy.

It sank one enemy cargo and troop ship before doing battle with a submerged Japanese submarine in which it was plagued by bad torpedoes.

"In the early part of the war, we had a lot of problems with torpedoes that wouldn't go off when they were supposed to," Murray said. "Sometimes they would explode halfway to the target and other times they would hit the target and not go off at all."

The Crevalle also took on the dangerous job of laying mines in Japanese shipping lanes.

The Sea Poacher launched in May 1944 and became Murray's third sub. It went to battle in October 1944, but by then the quarry was scarce and it spent its time attacking trawlers and fishing boats, sometimes on the surface.

In August 1945, the Sea Poacher was sent to Pearl Harbor for refitting.

"I was at Pearl when the war started, and I was at Pearl when the war ended," Murray said. "When the news came that the war was over, there was all sorts of boozing and hollering going on. It was quite a scene."

The war was over, but Murray stayed in the submarine corps until 1961, when he retired as a chief electrician. He had joined the Navy in 1940 after high school and a short stint as a field hand.

After the Navy, he worked as an electrician for the Army, landing jobs in St. Louis and at the Melvin Price Army Depot in Granite City. He eventually retired to Swansea to be near family.

"The Army was pretty good to me, but I was always a Navy guy," Murray said. "I was just a farm boy from Missouri before I joined up. But I got to see a lot of places and things I never thought I would see."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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