- Category: USS Arizona Survivor Stories
- Last Updated: Thursday, 19 November 2015 21:43
- Published: Friday, 23 May 2003 00:00
James Lenox Lawson
Gunner's Mate Third Class on 7 December 1941
Gun pointer Jim Lawson was settling in with the Sunday comics and a cup of coffee when he heard a mysterious thump. "After a couple more of those thumps, I looked out the porthole just in time to see the airplane drop a torpedo into the battleship ahead of us. I think it was the California. I could see the red meatballs on the wings."
"The newspaper went one way, the coffee went the other and I went out the hatch," where Lawson grabbed an ax to chop ropes tying the tender alongside. "To this day I do not know how, I don't remember getting the ax, but I cut the Vestal loose," said Lawson. "In a month of Sundays you couldn't break those hawsers with the blow of an ax, but I did it. It took me 15 seconds."
One Japanese bomb scored an extraordinarily lucky hit, passing through the deck and exploding among stored ammunition below. The subsequent secondary explosion rocked the entire harbor and ripped off the battleship's bow.
"As far back as we were from the explosion," it knocked us down," said Lawson. "The lights went out, and the emergency light came on in about ten seconds. Inside the lower handling room of the turret we had four battle lanterns, battery-operated electric lanterns. We put those on. As soon as I got up I realized we'd been hit real bad, but I figured we'd get under way."
"It was just a few minutes when the people down in the lower handling room, where the powder magazines were, started yelling, "We're hitting water and it's coming pretty fast!'" recalled Lawson. "We didn't have any power or any communications whatsoever with the rest of the ship, so we had no idea what condition she was in. The guys there in the lower handling room kept getting water, water up to their knees, water up to their waist. Pretty soon it was up to their chins."
Water mixed with wet-cell batteries, releasing chlorine that lay like gassy scum over the rising water, choking the dazed sailors.
"The fumes were so bad I was sitting there in the pointers chair with a t-shirt over my nose, saying, what do we do next?" said Lawson. "The division officer was absolutely worthless -- he didn't know what to do either. We had no communication with the bridge, we couldn't ask anyone what was going on. We were just sitting there in limbo. We knew we'd been hit bad."
Bailing out of the turret, "then and only then could we see that she was sitting in the water, broken right in half," said Lawson. "And she was on fire past that second mast, the tripod mast. The fire was licking the forward wall of the barbette of Turret Three, and those guys were dropping through the fire to get to the deck."
Oil gushed into the water around the ship and burned fitfully.
"It was deep and there was an awful lot of it," said Lawson. "Rafts immediately started drifting and floating into the burning oil ... I saw what was happening, and I was still trying to get the last (raft) into the water with another couple of guys. We cut them down , threw them into the water and jumped in. The guys who actually got onto one were going right into the fire, so they had to get off immediately."
"I was the second to last man off the ship," said Lawson. Lt. Samuel Fuqua, the senior surviving officer, was "the last guy. He went down to the boat boom and got down into the barge. I was trying to take this scared sailor in what I could muster as some kind of a a swimmer's carry. I was making no progress, just treading water with him, and the breeze and current were taking us into the fire. I went ahead ... and let him go."
Luckily, Fuqua got the barge running and tossed Lawson a T-shirt as he motored by, and Lawson tied the shirt to his foot. The other sailor hung on to the shirt as Lawson paddled for shore.
"There was a guy standing on the dock ... how he got there, I don't know," said Lawson. "He looked like he had just gotten off the grill. He was burned to a crisp. The poor guy. What kept him alive, I don't know. He kept asking for help and no one could help. What could you do?"
In those few moments, 1,177 sailors and Marines had perished on the USS Arizona.
James Lenox Lawson. passed away on June 15, 2001.
He was laid to rest in Pearl Harbor, interned with his comrades, 7 December 2001 aboard the sunken battleship in Turret number 4.
Information researched and compiled by I. B. Nease and N. A. Nease and provided on USSARIZONA.ORG free of charge.
May not be reprinted in any form, other than educational use, without prior written permission of the author.