On a December morning, they became eyewitnesses to history
Adone “Cal” Calderone
Navy chief petty officer USS West Virginia
Seventy-five years ago, Cal Calderone was below deck on the battleship USS West Virginia, docked at Pearl Harbor, when torpedoes slammed into its port side. It was one of the first vessels hit.
Calderone, now 96 and living in Ohio, remembers the initial attack well, along with the events that followed it.
After feeling the impact of the torpedoes, Calderone attempted to stop the ship from flooding and capsizing. The only thing keeping it from tipping over was the USS Tennessee docked next to the “Wee Vee,” as the USS West Virginia is commonly called, he said.
He looked up and saw water pouring “like a hose” onto him and his shipmates.
The group of sailors was trapped, in the dark, as the water quickly rose to their chests.
“We all held hands so we wouldn’t get lost,” Calderone said. “I thought about my mother; how is she going to handle this? At one point, the man next to me squeezed my hand so hard he almost broke it.”
Someone had the idea to escape the ship through an air vent in another compartment that went to the top deck.
“Everybody said, ‘Let’s do it. Maybe we can make it,’” he recalled.
Calderone took three deep breaths — as his training had prepared him for — and swam into the vent.
He swam, one man above him and one below, until he couldn’t hold in his breath any longer, he said.
“Finally, I can’t go anymore. I figured I’m going to die,” he said. “I opened my mouth, and it was air. Air and water and oil.”
Calderone helped pull the rest of the men through before all of them collapsed onto the deck.
He remembers one man — the one who led the group through the vent. They were lying on the deck, exhausted, when he and the man touched each other’s faces.
“We were brothers,” he said, his voice breaking.
The group of men got up and went their separate ways, adrenaline fueling them through the rest of the day of trying to defend against the Japanese attack.
Calderone never saw the man again and never learned his name.
“I’ve spent 75 years trying to find out who this person was,” he said. “Whoever he was, he saved my life, and I’ve carried that in my heart.”
The “Wee-Vee” sunk that day, and the seven other battleships at Pearl Harbor sunk or were damaged.
The ship was recovered several months later. It was repaired and reintroduced to the Navy fleet in 1944.
According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, 66 bodies were found in the battleship when it was brought up from the seafloor. It was determined that some of the sailors had lived for days before dying of lack of oxygen.
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