Pearl Harbor survivor recalls his experience
December 9, 2004
Fred Durboraw watched in horror along with millions of other Americans as two commercial airlines crashed into the World Trade Center Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. The horror and tragedy of that day, more than three years ago, brought back memories of another terrifying day when the country was attacked six decades earlier, a day that will live in infamy along with Sept. 11.
Durboraw was serving as an 18-year-old Seaman aboard the U.S.S. Phoenix on Dec. 7, 1941. The 300-feet long Light Cruiser was docked along the northeastern corner in Pearl Harbor on that fateful day. The ship was stationed just 300 yards from the nine neatly arranged battleships along Battleship Row. Within minutes three of those ships would be destroyed, two sunk, one beached and three others heavily damaged after a surprise attack by Japanese Navy planes.
The young Seaman had instantly become an eyewitness to history.
Durboraw, 81, a Minden resident for the past 19 years, keenly recalls America’s opening minutes of World War II, 63 years ago this week, as if they had happened 63 minutes ago. Recalling events of that day still bring tears to a man who takes pride in his service to this country.
“I was around for the first shots of the war and I stayed around for the final shots,” said Durboraw, a retired construction manager for the Pacific Telephone Company. “I was 18 years, five months, seven days and 35 minutes old when the war started that morning. I never thought I’d live to see my 25th birthday.”
Durboraw was helping clean the Phoenix’s deck when a lieutenant pointed to a Japanese Zero aircraft only 150 feet away and barely flying above the water. He recounted that the officer screamed “sound general alarm, battle stations, this is no drill!”
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Durboraw immediately climbed a 13-step ladder into the turret of the Mount 1 Starboard 5-inch 25 caliber deck gun only to realize it wasn’t loaded. It took him and his turret crewmates nearly four agonizing minutes to load the weapon. In the meantime, the air was filled with enemy planes and the U.S.S. Arizona battleship was directly in their sites.
“I didn’t have time to be scared; there was too much to do,” he recalled. “I fired thousands of rounds and hit some of those planes. By the time I was finished I had shell casings piled up to my knees.”
Durboraw barely had time to fire off a few rounds before his view was clouded by thick, black smoke. The U.S.S. Arizona had just been hit, killing more than 1,200 sailors. By the time the attack was over 2,403 military personnel and civilians were killed and 1,178 wounded. The long list of damage inflicted included the battleships Arizona, Oklahoma, California, Nevada, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Six other ships sustained serious damage. Some 350 Army and Navy aircraft were either damaged or destroyed.
“The Arizona never had a chance to get out,” he said. “There was black smoke as far as I could see and the water was on fire. The repair ship Vestal was moored next to the Arizona and escaped the powerful explosion and then went on to beach itself in the mud a short distance from my ship.”
With Durboraw still firing at enemy dive and torpedo bombers, the Phoenix began its first of three attempts to escape the confines of the harbor and get to open seas. On the first attempt, the ship’s Captain Herman Fisher headed west around Ford Island only to be blocked by the cruiser Detroit. After navigating around that vessel, the Phoenix’s next obstacle, besides dodging enemy planes, was maneuvering around the heavily damaged Nevada, which was struggling to beach itself near the harbor’s entrance.
“We had to turn around and go back while planes were flying over us,” he said.
Now the only way out for the Phoenix was to head south past the wreckage on Battleship Row.
“I saw a guy swan dive off the Maryland into the water. I sure hope he came through OK,” he said.
Phoenix’s third attempt to escape was successful as it headed to sea at a speed of 32 knots behind the St. Louis, which was fighting a Japanese submarine at the time.
Durboraw remained out at sea for four days anxiously waiting for another attack. When the ship began to run low on fuel it returned to the devastated harbor that was home to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. On the trip back to the harbor, Durboraw became alarmed while working on deck near the stern when he saw a submarine closely trailing the ship. After a brief moment of intense fear, he realized it was an American submarine.
“The harbor was covered with bunker fuel that looked like black tar,” he recalled. “The worse part was all the body parts floating in the water. That’s when I realized that I’d be lucky to reach age 25.”
Durboraw stayed onboard the Phoenix while anchored in the harbor. He declined to go on shore because of the many armed people with “trigger fingers on high alert.”
The Phoenix and its crew had survived the attack and would soon be headed for San Francisco where it would undergo repairs.
Durboraw returned to battle on the anti-aircraft ship U.S.S. San Juan, where he would remain on duty until the end of the war in August 1945. The ship eventually took him into Tokyo Bay a few days after atomic bombs had been dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Armed with a machine gun, he left the relative safety of the ship to pick up American, British and Australian prisoner of war held in Japanese prison camps.
“The men were certainly underweight and underfed,” he said. “They were in good spirits and had been through a lot. There wasn’t much food around even for the Japanese people to eat.”
B-29s dropped food and emergency supplies into the camps. Durboraw helped escort the ex-prisoners back to the ships docked in the bay. They were then quickly escorted to hospital ships.
“The war still wasn’t officially over when I went on shore,” he said. “I even rode the Tokyo subway to get to the prison camps.”
Remarkably, none of the Japanese civilians he encountered on the trip were hostile toward him. The machine gun he carried over his shoulder helped him feel safe on enemy territory.
“The Japanese were afraid of my machine gun,” he said.
Durboraw narrowly missed out on being a witness to the signing of the Japanese surrender document on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri. He won a bet with a crewmate and chose to take a nap instead of escorting Admirals Bill “Bull” Halsey and Chester Nimitz to the Missouri for the surrender signing. His crewmate got the glory.
“There was no hero worship back in those days,” he said. “I have no regrets about winning my bet.”
Shortly after the war, Durboraw met a woman named Del in a Hollywood, Calif., restaurant and married her in 1948. The couple has been married ever since and moved to Minden in 1985.
“I take things as they come,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have survived the war years.”
Durboraw did live to see his 25th birthday and many thereafter. Never a birthday or day goes by when he doesn’t think about the day that will live in infamy aboard the U.S.S. Phoenix.