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The USS Nevada was the northernmost ship on battleship row, just ahead of the Arizona. It promised to be an easy day for the crew. The ship's commander and executive officer had gone ashore leaving the junior officers in charge. Some of the men were planning a tennis tournament later in the day, others were preparing for a swim at the nearby beach at Aiea Landing. Moments before the first Japanese planes appeared over the harbor much of the crew had gathered for the 8:00 A.M. presentation of the colors. When the first enemy planes dove on the American ships the men aboard Nevada held their ranks while the last notes of the National Anthem sounded. Then they broke formation to head for their guns.
Below the ship's deck Warrant Machinist Donald Kirby Ross had just finished shaving. December 7th was the prelude to a special day, his birthday. Tomorrow the young man who had been born in Kansas, moved about from various foster homes during his early life, and then enlisted in the Navy in Colorado would be thirty-one years old. His world, after an often-harsh childhood, was looking brighter. The Navy had become a wonderful home and ashore he had a girlfriend waiting for him. Helen was a student at the local university and the two had been dating and falling in love.
When the first sounds of warfare reached Ross, he ran to the forward dynamo room. This was his duty station, an area he knew well. The dynamo rooms contained the controls for large electrical generators that kept the battleship running, that fed power to the guns, and that illuminated the darkened corridors below deck. If something were amiss his ship would need power. If there was an emergency the Nevada might need power to get underway.
"Getting underway" was an impossible dream for all the big ships at Pearl Harbor that December 7th morning, one of the single largest factors in the extent of destruction they suffered. It takes a long time to fire the huge boilers that power a battleship, often hours to build up the steam necessary to turn the big screws that propelled them into battle…or away from a massacre. To make matters even more difficult, such large ships usually require the assistance of at least two (and often as many as four) tugboats to maneuver in the confines of a harbor.
Fortunately for the Nevada, two of its boilers were fired up that day. Normally they could not quickly get up enough steam to move the ship out of harm's way, but that did not keep the junior officers aboard from giving it their best efforts. While the nearby Arizona was exploding in flames and as bombs ripped into metal all across battleship row, Chief Boatswain's Mate Edwin Hill gathered a crew to head for the wharf to which Nevada was tethered. Below deck Donald Ross and his crew were feeding electricity to power a "run for it". Above, Zeroes swooped low to spray the deck and wharf with leaden death. Ignoring the danger, Hill succeeded in reaching his pier and casting off the mooring lines. While the second wave of enemy made its run on the ships now dead in the water, the Nevada was pulling away.
BMC Hill would not let his ship leave without him. He jumped from the pier and swam to the Nevada to help direct its escape.
Below deck, Machinist Ross continued to supply the power needed to move the battleship. Amazingly, under the guidance of only junior officers only and without assistance from any of the harbor's tugs, the big battleship was steaming away from the immediate area of danger and towards the open water. It was an unexpected sight--a thrilling sight--and a badly needed ray of hope in a day that was otherwise devoid of anything to celebrate.
The Nevada, despite its valiant escape, was a badly battered warship. Water poured through large holes and she was moving under a very limited amount of power. Halfway to open seas it became apparent the battleship would never reach safety. The young officers steered her towards the shoreline, hoping to settle her in shallow water where she could continue to fight and survive the damage already done.
Suddenly the current caught the ship, wresting control from the navigators, and turning it completely around. BMC Hill rushed forward to drop anchor and keep the ship from being crushed against the rocks. Enemy planes screamed from the sky and three bombs landed near the bow.
Chief Boatswain's Mate Edwin Hill vanished into eternity in their explosion.
More bombs rained from heaven, several landing directly on the huge battleship itself. One even penetrated and exploded through its stack. The force of that explosion was felt throughout the struggling Nevada, and the heat and smoke it generated whipped through the ship's ventilation system with hurricane force.
In the forward dynamo room Donald Ross was standing below one of the air ducts and took the blast full in his face. The searing heat blinding him. Acrid and deadly smoke poured into the small room. It was the kind of smoke that could quickly render a man unconscious and inflict permanent lung damage...even agonizing death. Don Ross ordered everyone out. To remain longer would be to die. But Ross also knew that unless someone manned the all-important power station the ship would lose power and all ability to fight back.
Power could be shifted to the aft dynamo room but that would take some time. Alone in the smoke-filled room he ordered the power switch, then struggled to remain conscious long enough to accomplish the transfer. It would take about 15 minutes to complete.
Throughout that period Don Ross made the necessary adjustments and flipped the required switches to give the aft dynamo room control of the ships electrical demands. All the while he maintained communications with the men in that compartment by phone. When the job was almost finished the phone went dead. Ross had remained conscious long enough to do his job, then collapsed. The final tasks of securing the forward dynamo room, shutting it down after the transfer of power, were uncompleted and Ross was either unconscious or dead.
Sailors rushed below and pulled the barely alive body of Donald Ross from the room. Corpsmen did their best to revive him but there were more problems as well. The forward dynamo room had still not been secured and the temperature inside was reaching 140 degrees. Slowly Ross regained consciousness. Then, despite the efforts of his fellow sailors to restrain him and despite the fact that he was blind, he braved the heat to feel his way back inside to secure the forward dynamo room. When he was at last finished he allowed himself to be helped to the deck where for the first time he could breath fresh air.
When the battle ended the ships still burned. Ross told no one about his blindness, bluffing his way through organizing a clean up on the Nevada. Then word came that smoke was filling the aft dynamo room. No one could restrain Donald Ross from heading below, slowly feeling his way through the corridor to rescue the men still in there. Moments later he emerged, his lungs filled again with the deadly chemical smoke. Over his shoulders he carried the prostrate body of a rescued sailor. It was finally too much for his badly abused body. As he carried his shipmate the last steps to safety Donald Ross collapsed to the deck, blind and unconscious.
When the smoke slowly cleared around the harbor the USS Nevada sat beached at Hospital Point. Everything below deck was filled with seawater but the ship was still upright, and salvageable. She would fight again, all because of the courage and leadership of junior officers, men like BMC Edwin Hill, and a Machinist who always found enough strength to get the job at hand done.
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