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Oklahoma Memories

Pearl Harbor - USS Oklahoma

2011-12-03

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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."

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

That news bulletins was heard on radio stations in Oklahoma and around the country at about 1:30 central time on Sunday afternoon, December 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, he joined the Marine Corps. Because he had played in the band, he was made a bugler and assigned to the Marine detachment aboard the USS Oklahoma. Thus it was that 70 years ago, Sunday, December 7, 1941, Joe Lawter was the Marine Corps bugler standing on the main deck of the USS Oklahoma preparing to sound "To The Colors" on his bugle for the morning flag raising. Just before the ceremony began, as he was standing in formation, he heard airplanes approaching and looked up to see Japanese planes diving on battleship row. He told the corporal of the color guard, whose response was:

"He said 'Lawter, you're paid to blow not think' and I said 'well, there are Japanese planes' and about that time we got hit in the side with the torpedo."

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 he was the one who made the announcement that was heard throughout the ship.

"...and so he said 'General quarters, general quarters, and this is no "blank blank"!'"

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

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

Late that afternoon, our time, the first radio reports from Honolulu began coming in, including this one from the NBC radio affiliate reporting on damage at the Navy base.

"At Pearl Harbor where is based the Pacific fleet, three ships were attacked; the Oklahoma was set afire. All lines of communication seem to be down between the various army posts and Navy air drones and Army airfields."

The next day, Monday, December 8, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan.

"I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire."

Lawter survived the war, returned home eventually, earned a doctorate in education which began his career that included stops as principal of Central High School in the 1960s and teaching at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva. In 1988 this interview was recorded at a reunion of the USS Oklahoma crew. Lawter passed away on December 4, 1995, and a memorial service was held on December 7, 1995.

This week the Oklahoma History Center is opening an expanded exhibit on the USS Oklahoma and the Day of Infamy. You'll see a number of artifacts from the USS Oklahoma and artifacts from Oklahomans who were at Pearl Harbor on that day of infamy. 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.