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Oklahoma Memories

Pearl Harbor and the USS Oklahoma


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"From the NBC Newsroom in New York, President Roosevelt said in a statement today that the Japanese have attacked the Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, from the air." "By shortwave radio Colombia now brings you reports from its foreign correspondents overseas with summaries of the latest world news. Go ahead, New York. 'The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.'" (Football game radio broadcast footage) "We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press. Flash, Washington, the White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor."

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean

Those news bulletins were heard on radio stations across Oklahoma and around the country at about 1:30 central time on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 7, 1941, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. But one Oklahoman, Joe Lawter, had known for hours the war was on. Lawter grew up in Oklahoma City, and after graduating from Central High School in 1939, he joined the Marine Corps. Because he had played in the high school band, he was made a bugler then was assigned to the Marine detachment aboard the USS Oklahoma. Thus it was that 68 years ago this very morning, Sunday, December 7, 1941, Joe Lawter, the Marine Corps bugler, was on the main deck of the USS Oklahoma preparing to blow "To The Colors" on his bugle for the morning flag raising. But just as the ceremony began, as he was standing in formation, he heard airplanes approaching, and he looked up to see Japanese planes diving on battleship row. He told the corporal of the color guard, his response was...

"...and the corporal guard said to me - this is truth - he said, 'Lawter, you're paid to blow not think' and I said 'Well, they're Japanese planes' and about that time we got hit in the side with a torpedo. And we got about, I never did sound the colors at the 8"

The officer of the deck told Lawter to sound general quarters. Lawter said he turned to the boatswain's mate who was standing next to the microphone for the ship's public address system, and it was he who yelled the announcement that was heard throughout the ship...

"General quarters, general quarters, and this is no bull(censored)"

Lawter explained, that one announcement saved many lives that morning on the USS Oklahoma.

"And I probably saved more lives on the Oklahoma than anything because you wouldn't dare say that if you didn't mean it."

Things happened quickly for Lawter. The Oklahoma took a number of torpedo hits in just a matter of minutes, then the senior officer aboard the ship ordered the Oklahoma to be abandoned.

"And I went over to the side of the ship - you have to remember I was crawlin' almost - and I took off my clothes, all but my skivvies. I took the bugle and threw it as far as I could throw it, and out in the ocean I jumped, slid in the water, and when I slid into the water, I started swimming to the Maryland which we were tied up to, and I went over, I ended up paused in the water when the Arizona blowed up. You could see it. Everything was in the air, and the water was on fire. I was able to go down, I was a good swimmer then, and I got over to the Maryland."

Lawter survived the war, returned home and eventually earned a Doctorate in Education. He taught at Northwestern Oklahoma State at Alva for many years. In 1988 this interview was recorded at a reunion of the USS Oklahoma crew. He passed away on December 4, 1995, and a memorial service was held appropriately on December 7, 1995. His voice is a part of the oral history archives at the Oklahoma History Center along with other stories like his from other members of the USS Oklahoma crew.

The Oklahoma History Center is on NE 23rd Street, just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.