Unflinching Portraits of Pearl Harbor Survivors
Seventy years after the day that lives on in infamy, the soldiers stationed at Pearl Harbor recall their experiences
- By Megan Gambino
- Photo research by Brendan McCabe
- Smithsonian.com, December 05, 2011
(Marco Garcia / Wonderful Machine)
Seven torpedoes and two bombs struck the USS West Virginia. John Rauschkolb (above), then just 20 years old, felt the USS West Virginia shake violently as the torpedoes slammed into its portside below where he stood as a Navy signalman. He witnessed comrades die within feet of him and recalls explosions occurring in spots where he had just been standing. The crew managed to counterflood a portion of the ship to prevent it from capsizing, but the USS West Virginia sunk into the muddy harbor floor, its deck left just above the water’s surface. In a small boat, Rauschkolb made his way to the even worse stricken USS Arizona, where he helped recover bodies.
More than 100 men on the USS West Virginia died. Rauschkolb was reported missing in action. His family, in Belleville, Illinois, held memorial services for him on December 19, 1941, and then received a telegram: “Navy Department is pleased to advise you later reports received indicate that your son, previously reported lost, is a survivor. The great unnecessary anxiety caused you is deeply regretted.” After agony, ecstasy. The next night, Rauschkolb, reunited with his family and friends, celebrated his 21st birthday.
Rauschkolb was discharged from the Navy in 1977 after 39 years of service. In Pearl Harbor, on the 65th anniversary of the assault, he shook hands in a gesture of peace with Japanese war veteran Takeshi Maeda, who fired a torpedo into the USS West Virginia.