Originally published Dec. 7, 2007. Denis Mikkelsen died March 30, 2013, at age 90.
There was a moment on Dec. 7, 1941 – surrounded by smoke on the burning deck of the USS West Virginia, while explosions rocked the ship from below – when Denis Mikkelsen thought to himself: “This is the end.”
It was probably a common thought among the sailors around him at Pearl Harbor, as well as the soldiers and civilians on the nearby islands who went to sleep at peace and woke up to war.
Mikkelsen is a retiree on Spokane’s West Plains and a member of the small and dwindling Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. But on the day the Japansese attacked, he was a 19-year-old radioman on the battleship West Virginia.
He stood watch from midnight until breakfast, had something to eat, then slung his hammock in the quietest place he could find that Sunday morning – the transmitter room on a lower deck.
He’d been in the Navy just over a year, a native of Wilbur, Washington, who’d tried to join up after graduating from high school in the summer of 1940. Mikkelsen was rejected as too young at 17, then accepted when he turned 18 later that year. For the previous five months, he’d been on the battleship. With its crew of 1,000, it was much bigger than his hometown.
While Hawaii was pretty exotic for a young man from Eastern Washington, it wasn’t exactly paradise, he recalls. “It was hot and humid.”
He didn’t pay much attention to world politics. “I was a green kid. I didn’t know we were that close to war.”
On Dec. 7, he awoke to a call for sailors to man their fire and rescue stations. The orders quickly changed to general quarters, which meant he was to go below decks to be part of a repair party. He never got topside to see the other ships burning, but while sealing portholes he felt the explosions as the West Virginia was hit by a series of torpedoes dropped by Japanese warplanes.
“We stood there and watched the water coming in, getting deeper and deeper,” he recalled. The ship was leaning to the port, or left, and water was rising faster there, so the head of their repair detail sent them to the starboard, or right. “He sent us up one deck. Then they sent us topside.” Smoke was everywhere, and the order came quickly to abandon ship.
“A lot of ’em jumped. Not me. I was more afraid of the heights. I climbed down the ladder,” he said. Once in the water, they swam past the USS Tennessee, moored next to the West Virginia, and onto Ford Island.
Once there, sailors were ordered to a nearby building. Those like Mikkelsen, who were wearing nothing but a T-shirt and shorts because they’d jumped out of their bunks, were given some clothes, although there wasn’t much available. For shoes they got cardboard hospital slippers.
Eventually, they were ordered back to try to save the West Virginia by fighting the fires still raging on the battleship.
“There was smoke everywhere. We didn’t have the proper gear. They gave gas masks instead of breathing apparatus,” Mikkelsen said. Somebody took him to an upper deck near a gun turret, handed him a hose and pointed to a box full of ammunition, about 10 feet away. His instructions were simple: “Keep it cool so it don’t blow.” Mikkelsen said that if his Navy training up to that point had taught him anything, it was to follow orders.
He’s not sure now how long he was on the deck, hosing down the ammunition box. At some point, someone relieved him, and he went down to the main deck where the smoke was so thick he could hardly see. Something blew up below him. “I thought, this is the end.”
But it wasn’t. Someone led him out of the smoke and to the boat that took him off the West Virginia. He spent the night on Ford Island, then was assigned to the USS Salt Lake City, a heavy cruiser that arrived in port the next day and went back out to sea quickly.
“Supposedly, we went out looking for the Japanese, but luckily we didn’t find them,” Mikkelsen said.
One small consolation – he was issued new clothes aboard his new ship. Sailors had to buy their clothes in those days, and Mikkelsen, who was making $30 a month, hadn’t been able to afford new ones since his training days. He’d lost so much weight, they didn’t really fit him anymore – his pants had huge tucks on each side to keep them from falling down.
Because his old clothes went down with the West Virginia, the Navy would reimburse him for new ones that actually fit, and the Salt Lake City gave him credit until the reimbursement arrived.
Mikkelsen served the rest of the war in the Navy. He was on the Salt Lake City for a night battle off the Philippines, which he recalls as even worse than Pearl Harbor. He was sent back to the United States, assigned to a destroyer tender that was being refitted in New Orleans, and eventually stationed in the Atlantic. Although he hadn’t planned on it at 18, he made a career out of the Navy as a radioman, retiring in 1964.
At one point, he, his wife, Vina, and their three children were stationed at a naval base in Japan. He said he never had any ill will toward the Japanese people, although one day a local worker came to his house to install an air conditioner and told him, “I was at Nagasaki. You bombed me.”
“I told him, ‘I was at Pearl Harbor, where you bombed me.’ I never heard anything after that.”
Mikkelsen is a member of Spokane’s Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. The number of members has shrunk to less than 10 in recent years, and some are struggling with declining health.
As the second-youngest member of the local chapter, Mikkelsen is in relatively good shape. He joked that he recently watched a documentary from the 65th anniversary ceremonies at Pearl Harbor and thought to himself, “Man, those guys are old.” Vina reminded him that he is, too.
The nation’s attention to the anniversary of what President Franklin Roosevelt called a day of infamy waxes and wanes over the years, he said. After Sept. 11, people would see his Pearl Harbor license plate and honk or wave. Now, that doesn’t happen much.
But Mikkelsen says there is a lesson from the attack that America needs to remember above all else: “Be ready. Don’t let us get in such a spot where they can do it again.”
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