Firman Balza Photo by Mike Roemer

'We might even survive this'

When Firman Balza and a friend decided to join the Navy in January 1941, his father strongly advised against it. "You know we're going to have a war," the elder Balza told his son. "You get in a war, you could get yourself killed!" Firman responded, "Pa, if I don't go in the Navy then I'm going to go someplace. Now, if I go in the Navy, you'll know where I am, and you'll know there'll be somebody there looking after me. But if I go someplace else, Pa, nobody's going to know where I am but me, myself and I."

Reluctantly, his father agreed, and on Jan. 31, 1941, Balza began training at Great Lakes. Not a year later, the 18-year-old from Green Bay, Wis., was aboard the battleship Maryland when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Just before 8 o'clock, I'm looking out over Ford Island, talking to a first-class gunner's mate and a first-class cook. We're talking about how if the Japanese attack the fleet at Pearl Harbor and sink a ship in the channel, all these hundreds of ships in the harbor can't get out. And all of a sudden, here comes a Val dive bomber, right past the ship and over the administration building to the seaplane hangar down on the south end of the island. You saw fire and this great big puff of smoke. And then they just came like you poked your stick in a hornet's nest. From every direction there were airplanes going this way and that way. How they didn't run into each other is beyond me. For the next couple of minutes it was just one right after another.

Now, the Oklahoma's tied up to us. Bombers are coming in and they're lacing the Okie with torpedoes. They're hitting below the armor belt and opening up these great big holes like they're opening up a can of tomatoes.

"All hands, take cover!" Now, where are you going to take cover? You've got no place to run and no place to hide. Then you hear, "General quarters! All hands, man your battle stations! This is no s**t!" That's the next word you heard.

I go to my battle station and look around. I don't see anybody. Nobody shows up. So I do the things I'm supposed to do. I put the transfer switch on battery and start to crank the gun out. Then, after I get her cranked out, I say, "That doesn't make any sense. We can't shoot this thing in here anyhow. It's a surface weapon."

A bomb knocked out our forward switchboard and we lost all our electrical power to bring up ammunition from the magazines. We formed a human chain from the magazine clear on up to the boat deck and handed ammunition from one guy to the next to get it up there. That's how we functioned. We didn't stand there wondering what we were going to do next. We all did what we had to do. There was no panic. It wasn't like the movie. I heard a lot of cussing and people running here and there, but no panic. Everybody had something to do, and he was doing it.

By 2:30 in the afternoon, we're standing knee-deep in oil and fire, and a whole bunch of ships are sunk and damaged. I find out the bomb that hit the forecastle killed my division officer in the foretop. A piece of shrapnel hit him in the vein and he bled to death. They had lowered him out of the foretop onto the signal bridge and put him in the laundry, and covered him up with a mattress cover. When they tell me where he is, I say, "Well, I'm going to go down and see him." So I go down to the laundry, and all I see is his hand sticking out from underneath. I was so sick to my stomach I didn't eat for three days. To see that young officer there underneath that mattress cover ... Howard Crow was a nice officer from Texas, a very nice man, he was going to marry a girl, and there he is, laying there dead.

All over the place, dead people ... oh my God, every place you looked, their skin burned off. After they're in the water for a few days they're swelled up and blue. Guys went around in a motor boat picking up these dead bodies. They would be covered with oil, just black. They would get a boat loaded and then pitch them up on a dock and from there into a dump truck, like they were hauling cordwood - people who either drowned or got burned so bad they couldn't fend for themselves. Some got blown off the ship, some jumped off the ship, some of them didn't have no place to go but jump off.

We were trying to rescue those poor devils who were in that overturned hull right next to us. First we tried cutting with a burning torch. The hull was an inch thick. When we finally got inside we let the air out, and then what happens? The air comes out and the water comes in, and we drowned them poor souls. Then we got a smoldering cork bulkhead burning in there, and before you know it we had fire down below and smoke is coming out of the hole. Then we realized we couldn't cut them out, we had to go in there with chipping hammers that they used for knocking rivets off. These were not welded hulls, they were riveted, so by cutting the rivets off and prying the plates off we did manage to save 32 or so people. The rest drowned.

All I could say to the guy next to me was, "Now what?" All I knew was we were in the war. We've got something stirred up here, and maybe, if we're fortunate enough, we might even survive this.