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Robert D. West, 82; Rescued From Ship at Pearl Harbor

Obituaries

February 03, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With ocean water continuing to pour in, the five men decided to see what was at the top of the ladder. They found a sealed, watertight door.

After breaking a heavy padlock, they entered a dark, seemingly spacious area.

West and another sailor, Bert Crenshaw, walked and crawled until they reached the bulkhead on the opposite side of the compartment.

The three others in the group were about 15 feet away, but they had no way of knowing for sure: They were enveloped in complete darkness, and there they remained.

Every so often, they would holler and count off.

And as long as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 was heard, West recalled, "We knew that everything was OK and it was dry."

West remembered that it was easy to doze off, probably because of low oxygen. But they had no way of telling whether they were asleep for 10 minutes or two hours. And, thirsty after having swallowed oily sea water, West thought of the glasses of water he had turned down at restaurants.

When he was awake, West would pound on the bulkhead with his wrench.

After hours of repeated pounding, he finally heard an answer.

Rescue workers, who had begun cutting through the ship's double bottom the morning of the attack, were systematically working their way through the bowels of the capsized vessel searching for survivors.

As water began lapping at the entombed sailors' feet, the rescuers started cutting a hole just above where West and another sailor sat.

The five weakened, oil-soaked sailors were lifted out and guided through an escape route. At 2 p.m., the day after the attack, they finally saw daylight.

But the joy of being rescued quickly dimmed once they saw the devastation of battleship row, West recalled.

The Oklahoma was one of 21 American ships destroyed or damaged in the attack, which killed 2,388 people and wounded about 2,000.

West and the four other sailors were seated in a motor launch, given an apple and coffee with brandy, and taken to a hospital ship.

Although 32 men trapped inside the Oklahoma were rescued Dec. 8 and 9, tapping from those unable to be saved continued to be heard through the 10th.

In all, 20 of the Oklahoma's officers and 395 enlisted men were reported either killed or missing.

West and the other four sailors he was trapped with all survived the war.

And West, who had been there for the beginning of America's involvement, also was there for its end--as a crew member on the Massachusetts.

West had spent most of the war on shore duty--he helped establish a Navy training station in Maryland. But he was assigned to the Massachusetts in March 1945.

The battleship was among the first to bombard the Japanese home shores--revenge of sorts for what West and his fellow shipmates had experienced more than three years earlier.

"[Adm.] Halsey kept saying, 'Remember Pearl Harbor,'" West told Life, "but I was trying to forget it."

After the war, West moved to Philadelphia, where he had met his first wife, Betty, a few years earlier.

He worked as a salesman, first selling encyclopedias and then pots and pans door to door.

In 1952, he and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to work as a salesman before starting his home interior business in West Covina.

In addition to Diane, West is survived by his second wife, Mary; six other daughters, Elizabeth Peoples of Agoura Hills, Cathy Barnes of Santa Ana, Patricia Olivieri of Laguna Hills, Joanne Benschop of San Juan Capistrano, Marianne Middlekauff of San Clemente and Barbara Higginbotham of Mission Viejo; a stepdaughter, Cheryl Holguin of Irvine; 13 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

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